In the 50 years I’ve covered IndyCar racing, be it USAC, CART, IRL or Champ Car, the one constant was always a lack of leadership, direction, common sense or communication — or all four.
The men in charge have been lawyers, an ambulance driver, a gift card shop owner, a bartender, mechanics, an executive from Playboy, a marketing man from Nestle, a bull rider, a bull-s****er and even a 24-man board of directors of which a third never saw a race.
Now, some were smart guys that lacked any racing knowledge or good lieutenants and were doomed, while others were either con men or fast talkers whose vocabulary temporarily masked their cluelessness. A few were simply over their heads.
Of all the mind-blowing choices, the only one with any “skin the game” (as our hero Dan Gurney use to say) was Tony George, who unfortunately didn’t have anybody in his corner with any vision. The lack of somebody steering the ship has kept IndyCar racing treading water for the better part of six decades.
But something changed during the past couple of years, and it’s the best thing since the SAFER Barrier. Jay Frye (pictured above) has given IndyCar a plan, an identity and a reason to be optimistic. His ideas, honesty, willingness to listen and racing savvy did the impossible — won over the paddock, declawed the car owners, and made IndyCar appealing again.
He drew up a five-year plan for rules, engines, chassis and testing that brought rave reviews from F1’s Ross Brawn, fought to reduce costs, and is working hard to make the schedule sing like the old days.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Frye is easy to find at the racetrack and welcomes all opinions and ideas. He doesn’t sneak anything past anybody, and that openness has earned him the most important thing in racing – respect across the board.
“First off, I’m a big fan of Jay’s for all the reasons you just named,” said Bobby Rahal, who’s done it all from driving to car ownership to a short stint as CART CEO. “First and foremost, he’s very up front with you. He’s a straight shooter, and he returns your phone calls.
“I think people respect him tremendously because he comes in with an open mind. And coming from another world is a good thing, because he’s not constrained by what happened in the past.”
Frye operated NASCAR teams from 1996-2011 before taking a job with IndyCar in 2013 as chief revenue officer. When he was named president of competition in 2015, I wasn’t convinced he had the chops to call the shots and keep from getting trampled by Penske, Ganassi and the herd.
But the former Missouri football player dug into his assignment with enthusiasm, long hours, the ability to reason with the competitors, lean on his small but efficient staff, and then make a smart decision.
“He’s open to ideas, but doesn’t always agree with you by any means,” continued Rahal. “When he doesn’t agree, he has good reasons and it’s a two-way street with Jay, and that’s what I like about him. He’s got a sensitivity about costs for the teams, and he’s got a ton of experience. Yeah it’s in NASCAR, but not sure that matters. He’s got his finger on the pulse of this paddock.”
And it’s not just the owners or the track promoters that believe in Frye. The drivers are in line as well.
“Jay is the best communicator we’ve ever had,” said Tony Kanaan, who will embark on his 21st IndyCar season in 2019. “He talks to us all the time about rules and safety and calls meetings, and we all appreciate that openness.”
When Frye was promoted to president of IndyCar last week, it started a lot of speculation that Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles did it to ensure that NASCAR wouldn’t poach him. And a couple of sources down south confirmed the stock car paddock was very serious about trying to pluck Jay from open-wheel. Asked about it a few months ago, he replied: “I’m happy with what I’m doing right here.”
But really, that title is simply a confirmation of what everybody already knows: that Frye runs the racing show and Miles, to his credit, doesn’t micro-manage or interfere and concentrates on running the business.
Oh, by the way, in between the schedule, testing the wind screen, flying around searching for a third OEM, working on costs and helping another new team enter the series, Frye also found time to land a new title sponsor. It’s not done yet but it’s close.
It’s very much looking like there will be 26 cars for the season opener at St. Pete and maybe as many as 40 legit entries for the Indianapolis 500 — and just a few years ago it looked like IndyCar might be lucky to field 18 cars.
So Frye’s five-year plan that deals with everything from wings to gears to wheels to testing to new engine specs to cutting costs obviously appealed to Mike Shank, Trevor Carlin, Richard Juncos and Elton Julian. They can’t make any money off the paltry purses but they can buy a competitive car, lease an engine right off the shelf, get hands-on help from IndyCar and move right into the neighborhood.
Miles scored eight network races on NBC (NASCAR has seven) and got a real television partner to give sponsors (and potential ones) some good news.\
“The series is in as good a shape as it’s ever been,” declared Rahal. “There’s a direction that Mark and Jay have put the series on and it’s desirable for people to be involved.
“It’s taken some time but fortunately we’re on the right path.”
Frye shuns the limelight but he can’t hide from the fact he’s made a big difference in a short time and, trust me, he’s got a couple of ideas in the hopper that IndyCar fans are going to love.
So here’s a big thank you to Miles for moving Jay Frye out of marketing and into the front lines back in 2015. It’s working better than anyone could have envisioned and as we turn the page to 2019, IndyCar looks to be gaining momentum.