Ever get a tank stuck in the mud?
Sounds ridiculous, but it happens. The heavy, 70-ton machine that projects power through its mere presence it can easily sink deep into a quagmire, and no matter how hard a crew will try to get it out, it will plow further under its own weight. Without solid ground beneath it, the tank is useless.
The NTT IndyCar Series has experienced this same issue since the start of the 21st century.
After the Split in 1996, the series went through a period of adjustments and rebuilding that attempted to gather steam for future growth. But since the series’ merger in 2008 the series appeared to be building for the future on a layer of mud.
Plenty of evidence suggests this to be the case. With a full field of 28 cars in 2008, momentum appeared to be on the IndyCar’s side. Then a cable TV package with Versus was announced, which diluted the television ratings and reset any gains that had been made. A new car introduced in 2012 to replace the nine-year-old chassis was overshadowed by the death of Dan Wheldon in the 2011 season finale. The series then faced an identity crisis for their oval racing package when the long-time high-downforce spectacles that were the Indy Racing League’s forte were changed as a possible prevention for future crashes similar to the one that claimed the 2005 IndyCar champion. Ovals came and went even as the racing product remained good.
Leadership changes occurred, with Randy Bernard, Jeff Belskus and Derrick Walker all taking the reins at one time or another to serve some front-and-center role for the series. Public announcements to break the Indianapolis 500 qualifying track record by 2016 were laid out, but eventually on the ramp up the series had to mandate race setups for time trials in 2015 due to three incidents where cars flipped over. No dedicated effort was made to climb that mountain again.
Then there was the chase for a third OEM, which landed the series Lotus in 2012, but by the end of the year only one team used the underwhelming power plant before it bowed out of the series.
Repeatedly, IndyCar has tried to use its power bestowed by the Indy 500 and legacy of open-wheel racing to rise back to glory. But the foundation was never laid to support it. Missteps and lack of cohesive strategy, not to mention lacking resources such as a strong TV package, held up growth. IndyCar seemed to take steps forward but each time returned to being stuck in mud.
Roger Penske is a successful man in motorsports and business. It’s clear the impact he has made on the series since his acquisition of it in 2020 – discounting the COVID-19 season – early signs show there is progress being made.
There is a flow of positive messaging coming from the paddock. Sure, there is disagreement with race control, but there is a lot of consensus on the sports direction. Why? Because the teams and drivers know what Penske is capable of and have seen his results on the track. When the owner of your series took home 18 Indy 500 trophies before purchasing the full package, that gives stakeholders a big confidence boost and sense of belief.
When Penske Corps. took over control of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar they made the best decision possible by keeping the leadership team in place. That included Mark Miles and Jay Frye at IndyCar and Doug Boles at IMS. This trio were critical components in the Hulman-George family regime, but now are supported by the resources of Penske, an incredible difference maker.
Just over the last three years, with the shackles of the pandemic released, money has been spent. Millions have been put into IMS with Penske’s vision to turn the track into racing’s version of Augusta National golf course. A switch to taking on promotion and marketing duties for some races has proven successful, as the Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend in Iowa has performed on par with the early Iowa events when the series first went there in 2007. This was a prior disadvantage to the series as they lacked the capabilities and willingness to take these duties on like NASCAR did via the previous International Speedway Corporation for their tracks. Relying on track promoters proved hit or miss to synchronize messaging and marketing and one of the few times the series jumped on board with this idea was the 2011 finale, where Wheldon was killed. The results were overshadowed by his loss.
Heading into this season, a renewed marketing campaign with TV ad buys for local markets before races was executed. The effect may not have been impressive to some, but the viewership did increase year over year.
The impact on the schedule has been another solid example of the leadership influence of Penske. Going back three years, the effort to maintain date equity has helped tracks maintain consistency with their fanbase and helped attendance. The dividends paid were a 20-percent increase in spectators at events, to include a jump in numbers during the Month of May at Indianapolis. Taking in account the schedule next season, Texas has been the lone drop from the calendar after Iowa returned in 2022 with Hy-Vee. The latest event to be added is Nashville, which has so far has bucked the street course trend of waning after a few attempts like Baltimore and Sao Paulo.
Content coming from IndyCar’s official social media channels has improved, with frequent clips and engagements that were lacking previously. Much like Formula 1 and NASCAR, it doesn’t take long before a highlight is added on a race day to share across multiple streams.
There are some good vibes and energy emanating from IndyCar. To maintain growth can’t be done if the foundation is weak and it appears the series is taking a solid but patient approach to start from a place of strength. With legacy tracks like Milwaukee coming back and emphasis putting on making relatively new events at Nashville a key part of how the season plays out by slotting it as a finale, there’s quality decision making and it has proven to be ongoing.
After years of challenges, it appears that IndyCar is finally out of the mud and on solid ground.
About the author
Tom is an IndyCar contributor at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.
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