As IndyCar readies for its 2020 home stretch and rolls out its schedule for 2021, it’s hard to imagine, even now, that just over six months ago the members of the paddock weren’t sure they’d get here. The idea of running a dozen races was a pipe dream.
With Roger Penske at the wheel, there wasn’t a fear The Captain would drive things off a cliff as much as struggle just to hot-wire the thing and get it running.
Now, you have fans preparing to watch a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with Scott Dixon fending off Josef Newgarden in the championship race. We just saw Will Power and Colton Herta win races back-to-back.
What could be more normal than that?
“Normal,” though, may prove to be a foolhardy word moving forward. “Familiar,” maybe? But as IndyCar promoters, teams and the series itself begin to prepare for the upcoming season, there’s a sense throughout the paddock that things may not quite feel like they did before. 2021 will, no doubt, prove to be an animal all its own. Not the unknown monster, lurking in the shadows and bringing the type of immediate onslaught the sport felt in March of 2020. This brings its own type of uncertainty, where you feel as if you’re over-prepared, and yet under-prepared at the same time.
You have a half-dozen teams toying with expansion – two of the biggest, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, near-certainties to grow by one car. And yet, there’s talk of teams line-editing force majeure clauses, just in case. You have promoters hosting races two weeks from one another, one in Long Beach worried about what their 2021 street race might look like and another in Texas planning to press forward, business as usual until someone tells him otherwise.
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“Having fans allowed to come to events, it’s starting to create a feeling of normalcy,” A.J. Foyt Racing president Larry Foyt told IndyStar. “That being said, as you listen to medical experts, there’s a lot of concern about what happens when the weather turns colder. Everyone’s still very serious about (the COVID-19 pandemic), but at the same time, I feel there’s a lot of opportunity. The majority of people think we’re through the worst of it, but whether that’s true remains to be seen.
“We know another 2020 certainly isn’t sustainable for anybody, so we have to do the best that we can.”
A rising car count
In 2018 and 2019, IndyCar sat at 19 full-time drivers and 22 total full-season entries before a boost up to 21 and 23, respectively, this year. That increase came from an infusion of youth – three full-time rookies, along with Jack Harvey and Meyer Shank Racing moving to full-time – along with three other teams finding the proper sponsorship pieces to throw together combined seats.
Though the increase didn’t bring any bumping to the Indianapolis 500 qualifying process, it may have kept this from being the first running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in several decades with fewer than 33 cars.
Should the sport grow toward full-strength by next May, we could have our most exciting bump afternoon in years. Jimmie Johnson and CGR are finalizing a primary sponsor for the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion’s road and street course program, which managing director Mike Hull told IndyStar the team hopes to fill out with an oval-only driver. They’re also closing in on re-signing Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist to make for a jump to four cars again.
Penske told IndyStar in August he would retain his three full-season drivers for 2021. Three-time Supercars champ Scott McLaughlin will make his way from Australia to St. Pete in just over two weeks for what appears to be a christening, or at least an audition, for a full-time open-wheel seat with the team next year.
Add that to recent statements from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Meyer Shank Racing, Arrow McLaren SP and A.J. Foyt Racing that they’re all passively or actively looking to expand in the near future, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility for IndyCar to have 26 cars on the grid next year with regularity.
“All I can say is, with Roger taking over and the way he’s gotten us through the pandemic, I think there’s a lot of momentum still, and we’re seen as a high-valued property for marketing dollars,” MSR co-owner Mike Shank told IndyStar. “People want to be involved and get in on it early as we rise out of COVID these next couple years.”
Increases in TV ratings (up 4% outside the Indy 500 compared to last year) and car count are tangible evidence of the line we’ve heard numerous times over the years that IndyCar is trending upward.
“These last several years, we’ve managed the series, in part, with the teams in mind, and we’ve tried to use common sense to control costs, while trying to keep great racing on the track,” said Penske Entertainment Corp. president and CEO Mark Miles. “We feel we’ve created a level of parity and competition that generates great stories.”
Keeping costs down
Several teams, however, are adamant that those cost saving measures not only need to continue – they need to ramp up.
“I just know it’s so hard to raise money anymore, and we’ve got to also spend less money,” Shank said. “To do that, I’m willing to overlook some other stuff.”
The easiest way to find those opportunities, even as the series works with the Road to Indy ladder system to create the possibility of a required Indy Lights program per team, is by limiting the number and length of race weekends.
Don’t expect a repeat of 2020 with nine race weekends for its 14 races and fewer than two dozen days on the track, but there will likely be a reduction over 2019.
Miles said the length of race weekends are still being ironed out and he doesn’t plan to have anything as clear-cut or cookie-cutter as NASCAR’s one-day shows without practice and testing for new tracks vs. normal weekends at new venues.
“We’re going to look at every event to see what’s optimal,” he said, “Some could still be three, or two or even one.”
For oval races at WWT Raceway and Texas, that could mean one-day shows that have run relatively seamlessly this year, along with the continuation of the two-lap qualifying for Texas’ doubleheader.
Though they haven’t come off as complaints as much as admissions of the current climate, drivers and team personnel have admitted that the level of competition in races has, at times, dropped off in 2020. Though you have a series that boasts, arguably, the most competitive major auto-racing series, top-to-bottom, in the world, 2020 also hasn’t brought too many of those last five lap, edge-of-your-seat moments. Typically, it’s three or four cars setting themselves apart halfway through.
“This year, the way of racing has been difficult for all teams, but we’ve gotten to practice it,” Hull said. “If it comes to pass that certain events next year have reduced time on-track, we’ve proven we can do it. It’s probably been unfair to some teams, but the reality is, you need to show up and be ready to race no matter what time you have on the track.
“All of us have the same opportunity to take full advantage of the time we have.”
A happy medium on doubleheaders appears to have been reached, too, as it became a somewhat polarizing topic within the paddock. After a year when utilizing them was nearly as important as engine manufacturers, Miles said the plan to have just two in 2021 came with the idea the series “needs to take IndyCar racing to more great markets in an effort to grow the sport.”
And you can count Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing co-owner Bobby Rahal as one of the staunchest supporters of that movement.
“I don’t like (doubleheaders) whatsoever. I’m not a fan of double race weekends,” he said entering Mid-Ohio last month. “It’s grueling on everybody – the driver, the team, the mechanics, everybody. One little blip and you’re really hurt by it. I’ll be glad when they’re over.”
What those weekends taught teams heading into next year, though was that it’s not on-track experience as much as communication that can breed success. Even the best drivers and entire programs have been plagued by pit lane issues all year long, from stalled cars to wheels falling off on-track while running at-speed.
“You’ve got to fully communicate with everyone around you, whether it’s drivers, engineers, managers, mechanics,” Hull said. “There’s this heightened sense of urgency now because of time, and you’ve got to be open and honest with how you improve your product, based on priority.
“I pinch myself everyday now to realize that agenda-driven racing doesn’t work in a team environment anymore when you have no time on the racetrack to find things out.”
Re-opening their doors
But whereas the 2020 season has been a testing ground of sorts for teams and the series, tinkering with health and safety protocols and on-track procedures as they go, not everyone in the IndyCar community has had that same chance. Only seven of the 15 originally planned tracks were able to host races this year, with Long Beach, Barber, Circuit of the Americas, Detroit, Richmond, Toronto, Portland and Laguna Seca ending up on the cutting room floor for one reason or another.
After a 2019-20 offseason filled with so much promise as Penske bought the series, those tracks all were forced to sit on the sidelines and watch, their books in shambles, either from not holding a race at all or nearly having one and then having it slashed last-minute.
“We were about 70% built on March 12 when everything came down,” said Jim Michaelian, the CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach. “And then we had to disassemble and return everything to our warehouses, all at a considerable expense, and we sure don’t want to do that again. We need some pretty strong assurances we’re going to have an opportunity to recover some revenue we lost in 2020. Plus, we need to be fair to the number of spectators that afforded us a credit for their ticket purchase, as well as the sponsors and partners that have been part of this for the last 45 years.
“As consequence, we need to be able to be as clear as possible what the event is going to consist of, and a lot of that probably won’t be known until the end of the year, or even 2021.”
Consequently, Michaelian said the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is already behind on its ticket sales process. In early October, the race would have been courting advance purchases and renewals, with a public sale later in the month. When all that will start is still unclear.
“It’s not about being ‘weird,’ it’s about being viable. Does it work?” he added. “This all has to be conducted properly. Are people going to feel safe to come out and enjoy themselves? That’s the criteria now. People that hang onto the ‘old’ are going to get left behind here.”
Gene Hallman, the president and CEO of the Bruno Event Team that runs the IndyCar race at Barber, was similarly affected with his lost race earlier in the year, even at a permanent road course facility. Despite being blessed with generous sponsors that offered partial payments on their marketing dollars without a race, Hallman laments the load of “sunk costs” his team weathered at one of the nearly two-dozen sporting events that fell through for Bruno.
He’s targeting January as a tell-tale sign for what his 2021 race can look like.
“When that cancellation came in 2020, you said, ‘Certainly, by the spring of 2021, we’re going to be good,’” he said. “And here’s September and things are kinda starting to look a little better, but there’s no clear timeline for a vaccine. And when and how do you get millions of people vaccinated?
“The challenge is not blinking and being able to prepare as if nothing is going to derail you this year. But if the race is at all questionable at the beginning of the year, we’ve got to start cutting costs to structures and other things – those sunk costs we can control — to minimize the hurt in case we cancel.”
Though conversations haven’t involved IndyCar, Hallman added that internally, his team has discussed potential contingency dates, should they need to postpone the race. Should he avoid that extreme downturn, though, Hallman believes things should start trending upward in a big way for the series.
“I still think that when live sports come back in full, there’s going to be a significant surge in attendance and desire to mix among others watching live sporting events,” he said. “I’m very bullish, if we’re able to run our race in 2021, that we could have some very significant crowds.”
Elsewhere, promoters on the back-end of next year’s schedule, like WWT Raceway’s Chris Blair, are blessed with the opportunity to sit in the passenger seat for several months and watch things unfold. His ticket renewals will begin Oct. 5 as usual, with the track pushing big holiday ticket sales campaigns for an event that’s almost impossible to envision at the moment.
“We feel like we need to remind everybody that we’re still here,” said Blair, who was able to host thousands of fans for the track’s doubleheader in August. “You work so hard to earn a spot on someone’s calendar as a fan, and then one year everything changes. It’s going to be a true effort to win people back and make them feel comfortable coming.”
Blair said WWT Raceway was the benefactor in some way of other IndyCar tracks’ misfortunes earlier this summer. Many fans he met after Sunday’s Race 2 told him they decided last-minute to come the night before only after seeing Saturday’s race run to completion.
“And with this big chunk of older fans, we’ve got to do everything to show them that, moving forward, we’re going to have a lot of precautions in place off what we learned this year,” he said. “We’re not suddenly going to flip a switch and ignore what we had to do to pull off events this year.”
Ready (and needing) a rebound
Together, it’s a series that seems readily prepared for a rebound, but drastically in need of one, too. Without a lucrative TV contract, promoters need spectator revenue that hosting NASCAR races, for example, simply don’t require.
To get there one day, more fans must be drawn to race tracks while the days of duels between Dixon, Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, Will Power and company still exist. Growth, even under Penske, is unlikely to come at an astronomical rate, but there’s little doubt the personal touch he brought to the grounds of IMS can spread to IndyCar tracks across the country if given the chance.
In the paddock and on the sidelines, hundreds of decision makers, owners, drivers and promoters hope 2021 provides such an opportunity.
“The leadership stepped up to create 14 races this year when I think, at the beginning, we thought we might not race at all, and that in itself is pretty extraordinary,” Hull said. “And now, they’re making plans for the future and announcing a new race.
“They’re not waiting for someone to say COVID’s over. They’re working for a future.”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.