Good car counts, a talented field, a cool-looking car, an energized new series sponsor, and a full-time broadcast partner: IndyCar heads into 2019 with a spring in its step.
There’s still work to be done, starting with the perennial quest for a stable calendar that hits all the sweet spots in celebrating the diversity of venues that IndyCar competes on – and ensuring that those venues are viable enough to become permanent fixtures.
But have IndyCar’s current feel-good vibes trickled over into the business of actually getting people through the gates at a race weekend? To find out, RACER spoke to a group of track promoters representing a cross-section of circuit configurations, geography, and experience. We deliberately left out IMS, because the job of promoting a race at Indy is its own beast, and much of what applies there might not be relevant to other events. And besides, if the Speedway were to ever fall of the schedule, then IndyCar would frankly have bigger problems than a gap in the calendar at the end of May. Instead, this is about the other events: the races that help ensure that IndyCar can run a full championship.
The promoters who generously shared their time (while in the middle of a track build, in one case) were:
Curtis Francois (Owner and CEO, Gateway Motorsports Park)
Chris Blair (Executive VP and General Manager, Gateway Motorsports Park)
Eddie Gossage (President, Texas Motor Speedway)
Jim Michaelian (CEO, Long Beach Grand Prix)
Kevin Savoree (President and CEO, Savoree Green Racing Promotions; promoter for St Petersburg, Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Portland)
Gene Hallman (President and CEO of Bruno Event Team, promoter at Barber Motorsports Park)
There is a widespread perception that IndyCar is on an upswing. Is that changing the job of selling the race to fans?
EDDIE GOSSAGE: I can’t tell you that we’re really seeing it in ticket sales, but what we are seeing is that the fans who are engaged with IndyCar are really engaged – more than they were 10 or 15 years ago. It seems that there is more chatter about it on the social media platforms than there used to be. If you say something and you’re either inaccurate or you leave out IndyCar, you’ll get called out on it on social media. And those kinds of things didn’t used to happen.
Clearly IndyCar is trending up, there’s this positive vibe about it, and that’s hard to create – it has to happen on its own. So it’s trending in the right direction and that’s a positive for all of us in the sport. Our company, Speedway Motorsports, has probably invested more than anybody other than the Hulman-George family in IndyCar – more than any sponsor, more than any team, more than any TV network. So we’re thrilled to see it growing, and hopefully it will continue to trend upwards. We rode along and paid our dues when it was down, and hopefully we’ll get to ride it for a good, long time while it goes up and gets bigger and better.
CURTIS FRANCOIS: It’s hard to speculate because we began hosting our event in 2017. Obviously the success of the 100th running of the Indy 500 was a catalyst for bringing the sport back into the spotlight. When you combine that with the proactive approach of Jay Frye and Mark Miles, it just seems that the timing was right.
KEVIN SAVOREE: Early on right now, we’re not seeing that [connection between IndyCar momentum and sales]. But as the lead-off race with the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg, we might sometimes be in advance of some of that. But I think in general, the statement that the series has some health is accurate. Obviously a barometer of that is car count, and that number has kind of bounced all over the place since last season about what that’s going to look like. And while it’s not quite as high as may have been forecast early on, it’s still a strong field. I think we’re looking at 23 cars, so that’s obviously one gauge.
And then for IndyCar to be able to land the replacement sponsor in NTT is obviously a positive. Here in St Pete the verdict is out as to whether NBC Sports can deliver the same eyeballs as ABC. We’ll know that on Monday. I do believe longer-term that that [TV deal] will hopefully be a positive. The ball’s in their court. It’s a great product, and we’ll see.
GENE HALLMAN: IndyCar clearly has momentum, and that has helped us here with race fans locally. We monitor the TV ratings closely for IndyCar on a national basis to see if we’re drawing the IndyCar audience in this community and in this state, and clearly the trend has been upward. So fans are coming out, maybe not quite sure what to expect, sampling the product, and then to a certain extent, they’re becoming IndyCar fans, which is what both IndyCar and ourselves want.
So our local ticket sales have been on the uptick, and sponsorships have been on the uptick. We’re very pleased with what we’ve seen over the course of the 10 years. There has been quite a lot of change, and obviously there has been a huge amount of change within the motorsports industry. But I am very pleased with where we sit, and am looking forward to a long path forward with IndyCar at Barber Motorsports Park.
JIM MICHAELIAN: As a promoter you always want to be able to showcase series that are in an ascending mode, and creating a buzz, and achieving new heights with what they’re producing both on the track and off the track. For us now, I think IndyCar certainly fits that criteria. It can’t help but be beneficial not only to us, but to our spectator base and attendees, because when they are knowledgeable enough about the series and understand that there is some positivity that has wrapped itself into the series going into the 2019 season, that has to be an encouraging note for them, and also something that has an attraction for sponsors. And since it’s the headline event here, it’s obviously beneficial for us to be able to go to them with a package that’s led by an ascending NTT Data IndyCar Series. So yeah, there are benefits that include virtually all of the constituents at our circuit.