IndyCar 2018 by Stefan Johansson

IndyCar 2018 by Stefan Johansson

IndyCar

IndyCar 2018 by Stefan Johansson

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Stefan Johansson was a fixture in Formula 1 between 1984 and 1991, racing for both Ferrari and McLaren, as well as driving for Joest Porsche and Sauber-Mercedes in the World SportsCar championship. He turned to CART Indy car racing in 1992 and scored several podium finishes before switching back to sports cars, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1997.

In his capacity as Scott Dixon’s manager, Stefan has been a regular presence in IndyCar paddocks, and although like Dixie, he tends to fly under the radar in terms of publicity-seeking, he’s also a willing and forthright interview about all types of racing, as you can regularly see on his blog at http://www.stefanjohansson.com Now it’s time for the genial Swede to weigh in on IndyCar 2018.

 

DM: A lot of the interviewees for this series, and also commenters and fans who’ve submitted IndyCar 2018 ideas, have said something along the lines of, ‘The product isn’t the problem, it’s the (lack of) promotion, the series’ (in)visibility, etc. Is it that clear-cut?

Stefan Johansson: Yeah, I think so. There’s not a lot wrong with the product; I don’t see how you can get much better racing than in IndyCar at the moment. Every single race is a nail-biter, there are 12 or 15 possible winners, and the championship battle goes down to the wire every year, and often with more than two drivers in with a chance of the title. It’s getting people to tune in that’s the tough part.

There’s no such thing as a quick fix for resolving that, but what would you say are the best ways?

Well, for one thing, I believe they need to have something big and spectacular to hang their promotion on, and I’d propose they create a huge prize money “carrot.” Win the trifecta – a street race, a road course race and an oval, or win all three 500-mile races – or however they want to format it, and win a seriously massive payout like $15-20m. Something big, the highest prize money on offer in racing anywhere in the world. You can insure against that. It would get the series so much attention because we all know that money and sex are the two big headline-grabbers, right? It’s not more complicated than that. It would get people who may not otherwise follow IndyCar talking.

Currently, what has IndyCar got that they can hang a promotion on? I mean, Indy 500 and Long Beach as events, but what else in terms of the series itself? The marketing department has struggled for a long time now. Some 20-25 years ago, there were Unsers and Andrettis involved and they were winning a lot. Now, there just aren’t enough American drivers winning races consistently and challenging for the championship. You’ve got Ryan Hunter-Reay who is obviously extremely good but he’s the only one.

And that’s a huge problem, because while a lot of countries’ people are patriotic, America is especially so, and there’s an enormous depth of American talent in NASCAR. If some of those guys like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and so on had decided to go single-seater racing, we’d have had some spectacular American Indy car aces over the past 20 years. They had the talent. All of this would require a level of investment, and I don’t know enough about the financials but I am sure there are ways to make this happen.

ABOVE: Stefan after qualifying sixth in his rookie year at Indy in 1993 [IMS photo]. BELOW: Tony Stewart was once an Indy car driver – and an ace, too. [IMS photo].


Is that a cyclical thing though? I mean, look at tennis: there was a time in the post-McEnroe/Connors era when there were some fantastic US male tennis stars – Sampras, Courier, Agassi, Chang and then Roddick…and now there’s no one really, or not in the singles game at least. My point being that you can have the best facilities and training in the world – and I believe Mazda Road To Indy is getting there – but you can’t manufacture talent.

That’s true but I don’t think that’s the problem. There are talented American drivers in the junior ranks, and you’re right, there are some coming through the Mazda Road To Indy. But traditionally, NASCAR has had more appeal over the past 20 years. The earning potential there is just so much better – bigger prize money and a longer career. And so much more job security, too. I’m not saying that’s the first thing on the mind of an up-and-coming kid, who would probably prefer to go for the faster car. But ultimately, longterm welfare has got to be a consideration.

Look, when I raced in CART, I was a European going up against the American establishment like the Andrettis, the Unsers, Mears, Rahal, Sullivan and so on. They really were household names. Now I feel the general perception is that IndyCar is just full of foreign drivers who couldn’t make it to F1 or even GP2. Now, there were successful non-American drivers back then who became known and almost adopted, if you will, by the American public because of their achievements. Emerson Fittipaldi, Arie Luyendyk are two examples. And there are still foreign drivers who have become really established in this country, have achieved the same success as those guys or even more, but because the series isn’t as well known today as it was then, they haven’t become household names and developed a huge fan following.
And the newcomers coming in from Europe or South America now don’t have the profile to make IndyCar into a big deal.

So the perception is that IndyCar is just unknown foreigner vs unknown foreigner now, instead of American aces going up against the best of Europe and South America?

Right. So I think along with this massive potential prize money you need to have five or six or seven strong American drivers to really push and promote. Then I think you can really start to make progress.

How about the cars? A lot of people say IndyCar is in desperate need of opening the rulebook and bringing back innovation.

Whatever innovation you bring in is going to cost a ton of money, that is the plain and simple truth: rule stability is always the best way to keep the costs down. So that immediately starts restricting it to big corporations. But which big corporation is going to regard that kind of spend as being good value if the marketing and promotion of the series is only running at 20 percent of its potential? You know, you can open up the rules, but right now, I’m not sure there would be any takers. I am utterly convinced that the money would be far better spent in putting up a massive prize fund that benefits everyone, ultimately. Get the series into the public eye; then it might be attractive to companies who’d say, ‘OK, we’re interested, but only if it’s less regulated. And that’s when you start talking about opening up the rulebook to more innovation. Fix what’s broken before starting to tinker with subjective concepts.

You say innovation costs a ton of money but if it was manufacturer supported, would that be such a problem?

Well, WEC cars are the best example of innovation in racing, and relative freedom in power source, and I know that the budgets for the top cars there are up at the Formula 1 level – and really, that’s a championship based around one race. Some F1 teams spend $30m-$50m just on simulators and CFD because they’re not allowed to go testing, every component is custom made, and how does any of that improve the racing?

Well yeah, because it would completely change the IndyCar that we have now. Nothing F1 has done, despite its ridiculous, obscene costs, has actually improved the racing. At most, you will always have two or maybe three dominant teams, and the rest are just the clowns who make up the show. Force India or Sauber are never going to win a race, barring the most extreme circumstances.

That’s what makes IndyCar so unique. Look at Mike Conway last year, for example. Most of the time he was nowhere in qualifying but he was still able to win two races because the team rolled the dice, and he raced extremely well, and so Ed Carpenter Racing beat all the big teams. That wouldn’t happen in a lifetime of F1! So what does major innovation bring except huge degrees of separation according to budget?

But if IndyCar’s so attractive in terms of how many people can win, how good the racing is, etc etc., why isn’t there more manufacturer involvement? Everyone knows the US market is the biggest for so many domestic and international brands. What is necessary to get BMW, Ford, Audi, FiatChrysler etc. involved?

Well, that’s the Catch-22 situation, isn’t it, and goes back to what I was saying earlier. I think they’d want it to be less spec; the current regs probably are too tight for them. They can build engines and now aero kits, but I think to get more manufacturers into IndyCar, they’d expect to be allowed to get more involved at a deeper level and work on more areas of the car. That’s the downside of a restricted formula like IndyCar. So you either have very close, competitive racing, or you let the manufacturers in. And once they come in and start duking it out, that’s when budgets go through the roof, and the privateers fall behind, and start complaining they can’t keep up. It’s always a balancing act.

I think CART had it about right when there was four or five manufacturers involved – Chevy, Mercedes, Ford, Honda and Toyota. And they all did activate; they advertised and probably spent a lot of money doing it, but it helped to keep the profile of Indy car racing high.

TOP: A Swede, a Brazilian and a Canadian – no, not the start of a joke, but the podium at Nazareth in 1995 [LAT photo]. ABOVE: Rick Mears leads Mario and Michael Andretti, AJ Foyt, Al Unser Jr. and Bobby Rahal at Indy in 1991. Pretty strong U.S. contingent, then… [LAT photo].


Would people forgive the fact that IndyCar is almost spec racing if the cars were the flame-spitting monsters of your Indy car era?

Personally, I think so. Any proper racecar should have 900-1000hp if it is going to be appreciated by the drivers and the general public. It takes skill and bravery to handle, and the fans can see it. When I think of a qualifying lap at Monaco in F1’s turbo era, when we had 1400 horsepower, the wheel was never straight, because you were getting wheelspin even in fifth gear, so you were constantly correcting the slides, often one-handed because it was a manual gearbox at that time. Now, you see an onboard lap at Monaco and it looks quite calm, because the car is doing half the job for the driver. Relatively speaking, obviously.

The problem is, every racing category has been dumbed down, from the top, I think in the interests of safety. And so just like in F1, Indy cars are completely different to drive now than they were 20 years ago and although the cars themselves are safer now, I’d argue that the racing on ovals isn’t, aside from the addition of the SAFER barriers. My thinking is that it’s hardly more dangerous doing 240mph than 220 down the straights because it’s very, very rare you get an accident on the straights. Accidents happen in the turns – and that’s where the Indy cars are going faster than ever! So getting a bigger difference between straight line speed and cornering speed on ovals is not only safer, it will also spread the field out more, sort the men from the boys.

And to a lesser extent, I think there is room to make IndyCar racing harder, so there’s a better separation between the great and the good. The racing is very good at the moment but maybe that’s because the guys who aren’t quite as good can still perform reasonably well because the car isn’t as challenging as if it had another 2-300hp – that goes without saying. I don’t think it’s right that on a road course, the whole grid is covered by just 1.3seconds or whatever. To me, that just suggests the cars have been dumbed down a bit too much. I look at Scott and see he’s only half a second quicker than X or Y on the grid, and I think, ‘If these cars were as hard to drive as they should be, that gap would be two seconds!’

So yeah, spec racing in a more powerful and difficult car would be the way to go. Also, although certain aspects of the car are spec, I think there should be less regulation. I think the teams should be allowed to do more to their cars, to alter the car to suit a driver’s driving style. But also they should be allowed to have a greater variety of choices. The rules shouldn’t say you can only tilt the wing back this far or bring it forward that far. As an even easier example, I think it’s wrong that you have to run both types of tire. Give more choice, allow drivers and teams to adopt different strategies. If someone thinks they can run faster with two stops using three sets of black [hard compound] tires than if they do three stops using two sets of blacks and two sets of reds [soft compound], then they should be allowed. It brings in another tactical dimension, another variation.

OK, you say that they should be allowed to do more to their cars, and I agree. But where do you stop? Should teams be allowed to build a special wing or a reprofiled sidepod or little winglets…?

Well it’s funny you should bring up aerodynamics because that is the main anti-racing culprit, isn’t it? The amount of money that’s spent on aero in F1, for example, is ridiculous and almost makes the best argument of all for spec racing. Aerodynamics on an open-wheel racecar is the one thing that is never going to be transferable from racecar to road car and yet F1 limits boost levels, KERS power, fuel and so on but not aerodynamics. Yet, aero is one of the main reasons why passing has become so difficult in a modern racecar: as soon as you get in the turbulence of the car in front, you lose the front end which makes it very hard to make a pass.

So I would suggest – and this would be applicable to IndyCar too, in order to push innovation within the teams – that you’re given a limit on downforce, say 1,500lbs or whatever the sensible number is. That would be easy to measure through the strain gauges of the pushrods which feed right into the car’s ECU. Engineers would then have to look at drag reduction, and other yet-to-be invented methods of improving the overall performance of the car, but they could only go so far downforce-wise. Then the emphasis would be on mechanical grip through suspension, damping, tire technology. That way, you’ve got innovation, you’re stretching the talents of the engineers, but in a very, very cost-effective manner, because you’re still running the same basic car, engine, tires, etc. And the car is adjustable to suit the style of the driver who then also has to compromise between what’s best for him or her, but also what is quickest.

TOP: Stefan in action at Mid-Ohio in 1994. [Michael C. Brown photo] ABOVE: Scott Dixon leads Sebastian Saavedra at Barber Motorsports Park. [LAT photo] BELOW: Johansson in the Ferrari F186 of 1986, the peak of Formula 1’s turbo era. [LAT photo]


To change topic completely, there’s a belief that I’m sure we probably could prove with stats, that the traditional motorsports aren’t connecting with the youth market who look at drifting or rallycross, and mean that Ken Block and Tanner Foust are bigger stars than Scott Dixon and Will Power. Can IndyCar learn a lesson from, say, Formula D?

I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s easy access, and it’s a sport where you don’t have to know a lot about it going in; the basic idea is right there in your face, and it’s enjoyable right away. Part of the fascination of real racing is that it’s intricate, there are so many layers of understanding. When you become a fan, you start learning more and more about it – understanding things like drivers having to look after their tires while going super-quick, strategy, technology, and that’s great. But you can understand why a first-timer isn’t going to get it right away. Drifting, by contrast, is instant gratification. Personally, I don’t get it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s racing’s equivalent of synchronized swimming.  
 
But it’s over quick. If there’s a boring race in Global Rallycross or someone spins out early in a drift competition, it doesn’t matter – it’s over quick and then it’s the next race. As a kid, I used to love going to watch speedway racing not just because it was cool to watch the riders’ bike control. If one guy got a jump at the start and led all the way to the finish, it didn’t matter, because that finish was only four laps away. Obviously you don’t want to go that extreme, but could more but shorter races at an IndyCar event perhaps generate more appeal?

Maybe, it’s a fair thing to consider because the double-headers worked quite well and multiple races give more value to a weekend. But I wonder if four opening laps, four first corners, might get expensive! You don’t want a demolition derby where it’s last man standing. These cars aren’t that cheap… Also, the shorter the race, the less chance you have to recover from a problem, you know? If someone gets knocked into a spin five laps into a race, then over a race of 1hr 40mins. He can have an epic comeback drive and his team get a chance to play out some clever pit strategy. If it’s a 40minute sprint, that driver would be screwed.

But like I say, I think generally, IndyCar produces the best open-wheel racing in the world, I really do. It’s not fault-free, and as we’ve discussed, there are adjustments to be made, I think. But changing the product shouldn’t be the priority at all. The priority should be making the product well known, because I’m sure that if people saw it, the majority would love it, just like everyone who’s involved with it, week in week out.

OK, so does there need to be a revolutionary approach to the marketing?

There needs to be a revolution among the people who are guiding IndyCar, I think. Look at the most successful racing series in the world – NASCAR and F1. They’ve been run by the same people for decades as benevolent dictatorships; they consist of individuals or a very small group of people who have a precise understanding of the whole business, every little detail, but are also capable of looking at it from a distance. That’s important because distance means you avoid the internal politics down at team level, but also means you can see a long, long way down the road.

But these people aren’t just smart in business; they’re also real racing enthusiasts, people who have racing in their blood; their job is their life. And I’m sorry to say, I don’t think that’s the case for a lot of people in charge at IndyCar, which is why we ended up with Gene Simmons marketing the series, and then Boston Consulting Group advising the series. Totally clueless. They couldn’t tell one end of a racecar from the other. Motor racing is a very complex business at every level, with an incredible amount of moving parts; it’s unfair and a complete waste of money to expect someone from the outside to come in and learn in a very short period of time all the intricacies required to make it work.

If you look at NASCAR, they do small evolutionary steps most years, big steps occasionally. Formula 1 sometimes doesn’t do any steps if it doesn’t need to and sometimes there’s a revolution like with the current engines. But IndyCar seems to make at least one major change every year, whether it’s new staff, whether it’s new races in/old races out, whether it’s in terms of marketing tactics… There’s just no consistency in the message, year on year.

So I’d say don’t mess with the product; that part is good for now. Change how you promote it, invest heavily to make the public aware of it. And start by doing a massive promotional push behind the biggest prize fund ever seen in racing. And that doesn’t need to wait until 2018.

 

 

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