Welcome to the RACER Mailbag. Questions for any of RACER’s writers can be sent to email@example.com. Due to the high volume of questions received, we can’t guarantee that every letter will be published, but we’ll answer as many as we can. Published questions may be edited for length and clarity. Questions received after 3pm ET each Monday will appear the following week.
Q: What modifications, if any, did HPD and Chevy have to make to accommodate the new 100% renewable fuel from Shell for 2023?
Alan K., Raleigh, NC
MARSHALL PRUETT: Our friend Rob Buckner, an engine guru who doubles as Chevy’s IndyCar program manager, was kind enough to help:
“First off, I think it is critical to reinforce the support that both Chevrolet and our competitors have for the 100% renewable Shell fuel to power every IndyCar engine in 2023. It is the right product at the right time and builds upon the formula of E85 that was chosen at the start of the 2.2L era.
“Like most things in engineering the new fuel is ‘same as but different’ in that it is a direct replacement for the previous E85 but slightly different in composition, so it requires some attention to detail to make sure nothing is overlooked. For 2023 the manufacturers cannot adjust fuel injectors, but we are always able to change pistons and spark plugs which opens up some variability in the combustion hardware set. In addition we are always running engines on dynos for calibration refinement.”
Q: IndyCar provides great racing and little to no self-promotion. NASCAR provides very little if any compelling racing, yet excels at self-promotion. One series enjoys success within its arena while one languishes in relative obscurity. Just an observation.
John, Seville, Ohio
MP: Been sick and in bed for most of the time since I got home from Spring Training, and with a foggy head as well, so I had time to watch a lot of what took place in Daytona. I usually watch the last 30 minutes of the Daytona 500 and nothing else, so taking in all the pre-race festivities, the features they rolled out one after the other and so on, left me massively impressed.
My main takeaway was similar to yours: Wow, NASCAR really loves itself, and it shows in everything they do. Everything is so deeply infused with NASCAR history that old fans have tons to embrace while there was lots of new-era stuff presented for NASCAR’s most recent fans. And it was fun. Just love and fun and big energy. My close to the takeaway was: I wish IndyCar was more like that with how it presents itself to the world.
I know IndyCar is deathly afraid of looking old and it wants nothing more than to get younger — it has the oldest fanbase among racing series — so maybe all that NASCAR put out during Daytona could serve as a blueprint on how to love yourself and love your history without alienating newer fans. It felt like the perfect balance was struck. All IndyCar wants is youth, and you can feel it in everything they do. Which is sad, considering the incomparable amount of history we have to celebrate.
And then the race… Lord, I actually tried to watch the whole thing but fell asleep either due to nothing happening or the long cleanups. “These ************* just love running into each other” was a statement made more than once on Sunday.
Q: I’m writing in response/addendum to the question from Rod in Fresno, CA on leaders circle payout and marketing.
On the “Off Track with Hinch and Rossi” episode from February 2, Alex mentioned that one thing he was excited to do at Media day was a “national ad campaign” for Long Beach. I guess I see it as a possibility that the money they pulled from the Leaders Circle payout could be going to a larger ad campaign. That sounds good to me. So many of us constantly complain about the lack of ads. Do you have any insights as to if the ads they were filming are similar to previous years ads, or if this will be a more widespread campaign?
As a comment, I totally get the frustration teams have with the Leaders Circle payout going down. I don’t think a single one of us would be happy to hear that the company we work for is suddenly going to decrease the profit sharing that we get at the end of the year. But that’s exactly what this is. Profit sharing. Should the teams have been kept more in the loop? 100%. Should there have been more clear communication on what that money will be used for? 100%. But when I also look at the overall picture and see that the car count is going up again and multiple teams are building new facilities as well as expanding to other racing series, I don’t see this as some doom and gloom “IndyCar is dying” scenario.
From a business perspective, if the teams are really healthy (as most seem to be), pulling a little cash from each payout and applying it to something that should help the series grow long term looks like a great idea. Unless my math is wrong, a decrease of $150k for an estimated $6m budget to run a car for an entire season is 2.5% decrease. That doesn’t seem like a huge change.
Tyler, Milwaukee, WI
MP: IndyCar is using its drivers for national TV ads on NBC to air ahead of each race as promos for those events, and from what I’m told, they’ve made a nice call to have the drivers do the full voiceovers instead of using a generic voice to handle most of the words. We, collectively, along with the drivers, continue to ask for more national promotion of our finest talents, and it sounds like Penske Entertainment and NBC Sports are making it happen.
I wouldn’t pretend to know all of the financial intricacies behind IMS and IndyCar, but as I’ve understood things — and I think most fans know — the Speedway is the big annual cash generator, taking in waves of money for the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400, and other events to a lesser degree.
And from those Speedway-generated profits, budgets for IndyCar get set for operations, marketing, staff, travel, safety, medical, and all the other departments within a business that tours the country and puts on live sporting events. You can also factor in the money IMS and IndyCar take in from sponsors and official partners, and whatever else comes in from television, event promotions, rights fees, licensing, and so on. And from the Speedway’s income, they’ve also set annual prize funds, spanning most recently back to the good old Indy Racing League to today’s NTT IndyCar Series.
If I’m an IndyCar team owner who didn’t take kindly to learning your 2023 Leaders Circle contract(s) are short $150,000 apiece, I’d be asking why, within the expanse of income to work with, the increase spend in marketing wasn’t simply that — an increase in budget — instead of being something that Penske Entertainment was unwilling to commit on its own and felt the need to take from what it gives to its LC entries. It’s the taking from 22 entries that has rankled those who are rankled. By the numbers, yes, it’s a tiny amount lost from an annual budget. This is also the only business link between the series and its teams.
It’s not like these are franchise owners who are obligated to contribute an annual percentage pack to the corporation for advertising and whatnot. It’s a paddock filled with independent business owners, Penske excluded, who find and spend their own money to compete. That single financial link — the socialized prize money system — brings each entry that guaranteed money, and also guarantees the series will have their participation at every event. I think of it like an appearance fee — LC entries get the same money to show up at 17 races and IndyCar gets a guarantee it will have 20-plus car at every round, which also helps each promotor to sell tickets since all the big-name drivers will be there to put on a show.
You are 100-percent correct in saying that clipping $150,000 off each LC is not, in and of itself, a doom-and-gloom scenario. What it is, though, is the first indicator from the series’ owner that they are willing to take from the paddock, rather than dip into their own budget. It leads to fears of a cascading situation. If there’s a decision to increase the budget in another area next year, is another slice to the LC on the way?
As for funding and budgets, I count two teams that are flush with cash. The rest, to whatever degree, are still searching for money, dipping into their personal wealth, or placing their company’s name on the side of a car one or more times a year to cover a shortfall.