Photo: Shawn Gritzmacher/INDYCAR

INDYCAR Roundtable: Gateway and Expectations

The Verizon IndyCar Series just concluded their return to Gateway Motorsports Park and it provided its own unique element to the season. The gang reviews that, the upcoming race at Watkins Glen, expectations moving forward on the potential 2018 television deal and more.

Gateway’s return to the series brought out one of the more intriguing races of 2017, what is your assessment of their return and might we see more tracks return to the schedule that follow their approach?

Frank Santoroski, Contributing Writer and Host of Drafting the Circuits podcast: Gateway seemed to defy the odds with their return. Phoenix plays to mostly empty stands, the crowd at Texas has dwindled, and Pocono was slow to build an audience, although this year’s crowd was quite encouraging. It really shows how much Curtis Francois and his team believed in the event and in INDYCAR. A combination of solid local marketing, combined with marketing efforts in close by markets, notably Indianapolis, put 40,000 in the seats.

The real question is: Why did Gateway succeed where others failed? It wasn’t that many years ago that Andretti Sports Marketing put a major effort in reviving the race at the Milwaukee Mile and failed miserably. Anyone interested in bringing an oval race to the series should take a page at Gateway’s playbook and study it carefully. I’d love to see Kentucky, Michigan, Chicagoland, or even Richmond back on the calendar, but only if it is executed properly. Face it, it’s much more fun to report on a rousing success than a flop.

Christopher DeHarde, INDYCAR & Road to Indy Writer for Motorsports Tribune: The return was nearly perfect. The promotion was solid, the racing was halfway decent, the crowd was amazing, the only negatives were the very beginning of the weekend and the very end of the weekend. The process to pick up credentials was a bit confusing because the building that had them didn’t have a sign on it facing the road as you came off the interstate. The post-race traffic was a bit of a problem but there’s two sides to that. One is that there were a lot of people there, two is that there was definite room for improvement. The biggest takeaway is that with a promotional blitz, aluminum isn’t nearly as visible.

Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer: By any realistic assessment, it’s difficult to consider Gateway Motorsports Park anything other than a success. Sure, the stands in the turns were left empty, and I heard there were traffic woes. But that crowd on the frontstretch was an impressive sight, and fans could be heard screaming during key moments on TV even as the field roared by them.

As for what led to it, I think it was a combination of two things – belief and the simple principle of supply and demand.

Curtis Francois and his crew held a tremendous belief that a VICS return could be a success, and it was reflected in their efforts, marketing push and, ultimately, the amount of fans in attendance.

However, one factor that also went into making Gateway a success above other recent oval returns that few people seem to be discussing is the lack of major NASCAR events at the facility. Phoenix, Pocono and many of the other ovals that the series has visited or considered in recent years all have one or two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races per year. These tracks are considered NASCAR tracks above all else, so bursting into them with a competing product can prove difficult – just look at INDYCAR’s struggles in Phoenix and slow growth at Pocono for proof.

However at Gateway, the only true competing tour is the Camping World Truck Series. Given that, INDYCAR could be argued as the top series to run at the facility this year, which increases their demand.

This could be something for the series to look into moving forward – paving their own way at unique oval venues.

Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief of Motorsports Tribune and freelance contributor to I thought Gateway Motorsports Park absolutely nailed it. From the promotion to the repave, it gave both the fans and drivers an opportunity to enjoy its facility along with the product.

I have always believed that INDYCAR could win the Midwest and should try to hone in on tracks around that area – Kentucky, Chicagoland, etc. – and, aside from the opening sequence with a Tony Kanaan spin in the lead up to green and the following wreck in Turn 2 once the green flag waved, the show was everything it could be.  I enjoy the fact that INDYCAR isn’t afraid to go away from the SMI and ISC tracks and more on the independent circuit to find a good place for their show. It’s become very humdrum the way other racing series only rely on SMI and ISC for their shows and in turn hurt the very tracks that have helped elevate the overall health of motorsports.

It is my hope that other tracks will bet on themselves the way that Gateway did, and to that end, applaud INDYCAR for being the ones to give them that faith. As far as other tracks go, I believe, even though it is an SMI track, that Kentucky would be a prime location for another INDYCAR oval. After all, they only host one NASCAR Cup weekend  out of the year and given the climate of the area, could virtually pick any date during the season.

Watkins Glen provided a pivotal part of the championship battle last season and INDYCAR goes there this weekend as part of the penultimate race to the season finale, what are your expectations and can anyone outside of the top four get back into the title picture?

FS: At this point it is Josef’s championship to lose. One poor result out of Newgarden, and three guys are right there to capitalize. A full-course caution in the middle of a pit cycle also has the potential to affect the championship. As far as a dark horse, don’t count on it. While guys like Rossi, Rahal and Sato have a mathematical shot at the crown, go ahead and stick a fork in them. In order to win this thing they would need all four Penske cars to collide with one another on the opening lap at Watkins Glen, and then have Scott Dixon wreck after running over their debris.

Realistically, the biggest threat to Newgarden comes from Scott Dixon. The Ganassi driver is cool under pressure, and if the Penske drivers blow it by mixing it up with one another, Dixon will come through. He’s won it in that exact scenario before.

CD: Outside the top four getting back into the title picture would require some seriously bad luck to befall the main contenders for the championship. As long as Josef Newgarden keeps driving like he has nothing to lose, then I honestly don’t see anybody getting themselves back into this championship.

AB: Watkins Glen provided a pivotal part of the championship battle last season and INDYCAR goes there this weekend as part of the penultimate race to the season finale, what are your expectations and can anyone outside of the top four get back into the title picture?

I firmly expect the current swath of championship contenders to come out swinging.

Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves should come out aggressive after watching Josef Newgarden inch closer to the Astor Cup at Gateway. Newgarden will likely come out swinging, too, given that he can effectively end the championship race with a strong run in New York. Will Power likely ended his hopes with that opening spin at Gateway, but the Aussie’s likely to rip through the boot with fury this weekend.

Given Team Penske’s recent strength, they’re likely the team to beat.

JB: I’ll go against the grain here and say that the top eight in the overall championship still have a decent shot. Would it require a bit of luck? Absolutely, but considering how bonkers this season has been it is hard for me to discount anything. I see where Newgarden sits at the top of the standings and for some reason feel there is still a long way to go.

With double-points at Sonoma, there is essentially three races left. After hearing how positive Alexander Rossi was at a recent test at Watkins Glen and Dixon’s solid record there, I honestly think that is the pair we will see battling for the win there. I’m never one to say a driver is due, but Rossi has certainly shown that win No. 2 is coming soon.

The potential of bad blood with Newgarden and teammate Simon Pagenaud has the possibility to spill over, especially considering the latter is the reigning series champion. I think that likely puts Helio Castroneves and Will Power ahead of both of them and battling for the final spot on the podium. Add Graham Rahal’s exemplary road course record since the Indianapolis 500 and it isn’t so far-fetched to say that Newgarden finishes barely inside the top 10 and loses considerable points on his rivals, maybe even the overall lead in the standings.

Looking back at expectations coming into 2017, what would you list as the three biggest disappointments of the season thus far?

FS: The biggest disappointment has to go to A.J. Foyt Racing. In 2016 they cleaned house and retooled, only to have a miserable season. In 2017, they scrapped their drivers and moved to Chevrolet with high hopes, but the results haven’t been much better. Munoz and Daly have one top -five finish on the season between them, with that coming for Daly last week. They have had a few encouraging runs on the ovals, but the bulk of their season has been playing the role of “Back Row Joe.”

Bourdais’ crash at Indianapolis was very disappointing. His recovery has been fantastic, but I am left with this empty feeling of “what if” considering the high note that their season began on. Phoenix was a disappointment as well. The aero package wasn’t even close to what the series needs to put on an entertaining show, although there were very few there to see it anyway. Being a track with a long open-wheel history, this place deserves better.

CD: My biggest disappointment would have to be the Ganassi team as with four drivers on the grid to have only one win between them is shocking. Chilton cracked the top five at Indianapolis, Kimball’s best finish is a sixth at Road America while Kanaan has three top fives including a second at Texas when he was the pinball. My second would have to be Phoenix as the racing there wasn’t as good as it can be but the 2018 aerodynamic package should fix that. My third disappointment would have to be A.J. Foyt Racing but in recent weeks the team has started to turn around their bad luck. Conor Daly has a fifth and a tenth in the last three races and maybe the move of taking his crew to Indianapolis is starting to pay dividends. Had Daly not turned in those results, Foyt’s team would be number two on that list.

AB: 1) Fernando Alonso’s blown motor in the Indianapolis 500. The Formula 1 ace was putting on a splendid show for McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport before the all-too-familiar sensation of a powerless machine brought him to a stop in Turn 1. Here’s to hoping Alonso returns for another Indy 500 (or a full season) and shows us just how much he can do.

2) A.J. Foyt Racing. Gateway showed promise, but until then this season had proven dreadful for SuperTex and his gang. A manufacturer change appeared to set them back early, and continual issues for both new drivers Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly added little help. Hopefully the promise they’ve shown over the last month translates to better results moving forward.

3) Andretti Autosport. Yes, they won the race with Takuma Sato back in May, but otherwise this season’s been a blunder for Andretti. Early speed from Alexander Rossi never translated to victory lane, though Long Beach was a near miss. Ryan Hunter-Reay has been quiet, Sato’s done little outside of Indianapolis and Marco Andretti continues to slump and make many question his potential to contend moving forward.

Throw in the lengthy wait just to announce a return to Honda, which might have cost them Sato, and Andretti’s lone highlight in May doesn’t seem enough to compensate for the difficult season surrounding it.

JB: First and foremost, I have to go with Mikhail Aleshin. The Russian is perhaps too fast for his own good. His style is fun to watch, but expensive for a race team like Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. I had hoped that his full-time return would be met with him progressing to another level, but if anything it was the opposite and now both Sebastian Saavedra and Jack Harvey share that seat. I’ll disagree on A.J. Foyt Racing due to the growing pains I expected them to go through and thus being an obvious choice.

However, I will agree with the Phoenix fiasco. They are an ISC track and were just outdone by Gateway by a mile – see what I did there – and simply put, people in that area have told me that little to no marketing was done to make fans, or potential ones, aware. I will hold out hope for one additional year that the combination of the 2018 universal aero kit and people of Phoenix will give this race an honest effort next season.

For the third, I’ll shy away from Ganassi and instead go the way of Ed Carpenter Racing. Hit with both the loss of Josef Newgarden and his engineer, the team showed promise with JR Hildebrand and former WEC-turned-INDYCAR engineer Justin Taylor. I’ve seen flashes, but outside of two podiums at Phoenix and Iowa, it’s been lights out for the No. 21 bunch. In addition, driver and team owner Ed Carpenter has had some of the worst luck and is now left hoping to right it in 2018. Spencer Pigot has been a breath of fresh air and I am personally hopeful that he gets a nod at ECR or elsewhere for a full season opportunity, it’s certainly warranted. I am very curious to see what this team looks like in 2018.

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule was a rarity in recent history as it was nearly identical to the prior year, save for the addition of Gateway Motorsports Park. How do you feel running a similar schedule has gone this year, and what changes (if any) do you feel should be made moving forward?

FS: Date equity is important, so I’m all for a similar schedule. In the future I would like to see the schedule to expand to 20-22 races, but it has to be a gradual growth. Throwing four more races on next year’s calendar won’t work, but if one or two are added at a time and allowed the opportunity to grow, then it’s palatable. The thought of an international race to kick off the season is intriguing, although what I’d prefer to see is races added on the back end of the schedule to extend further into the Fall.

I heard at least one suggestion that the finale should be moved to Gateway after the success we saw this weekend. I believe that it’s a bit early to jump the shark here, but it’s a thought for the future. Sonoma, while it can be a boring race, is located in the beautiful wine country of California and it is a lovely setting for the season-ender. The rather industrial area surrounding Gateway doesn’t capture the imagination quite as much. Of course, many would like to see the series finish on an oval track, but nobody was bitching when CART finished up at Laguna Seca for years.

CD: The schedule was nearly perfect except for the nonsensical ordering of Long Beach, Barber and Phoenix within a four week period. West coast, back east (after stopping at their home bases near Indy for most teams) then west coast again didn’t make sense from a logistical standpoint. It was reported that Phoenix and Long Beach will be back to back weekends next year which makes a ton of sense and I’m hoping that if another race in the south is added that it could go between St. Petersburg and Barber. I’d also like to see the series expand back to the Pacific Northwest with a race in Portland and I think if the series could somehow expand the conversations with Michigan and/or Cleveland that the schedule would be nearly perfect.

AB: Having some consistency to the schedule has been a positive for INDYCAR this season. For once the tour didn’t have to worry about mid-season schedule changes or dropped races. Instead the paddock’s been able to march on, knowing how the tour would play out.

The addition of Gateway was a great one, and the return races proved successful in the case of all events save perhaps for Phoenix. If INDYCAR can add a few more events to push the schedule to 20 races, and smooth out a few of the logistics among the current group of tracks, then the tour could prove fortuitous moving forward.

JB: As far as fan attendance, I think it’s been really solid and comparable – and in some ways better – than last year. I put the overall number that would be ideal at 20 races per season. Ideally, with Jay Frye bringing in ISC tracks like Phoenix and Watkins Glen back into the fold, the latter being a pleasant success, I would enjoy seeing the season end near Detroit with a return to Michigan International Speedway. I believe an early October date or last weekend of September would be perfect with both weather and months run as a series.

I like the idea of slowly progressing and adding tracks, and doing so in the Pacific Northwest, but instead of Portland, I vote for a return to Vancouver. Although the circuit can’t be the same, something could be done. Plus, the Canadian people need more than just Toronto.

Overall, I like where we are and where we are going as a series.

INDYCAR’s TV contract is up after the 2018 season. What are some of the parameters they should look for in signing a broadcast partner and how should they approach the cord cutter phenomenon?

FS: What IndyCar would like to have, and what will be offered in the way of a television package are likely to be miles apart. Certainly we would all like to see every race on Network TV, with a decent pre-race program, streaming options, and a weekly wrap-up show. Since that’s not going to happen, the big things should be consistency, i.e. one programming partner has the whole series. Secondly, since the series is experiencing growth, they should be careful to not lock it down for too many years. A shorter term agreement has the potential for negotiating a more lucrative deal in a few years should the growth continue. There are a number of options out there, as the face of television is changing. With that said, we still need a partner that is still affiliated with a major network, rather than an upstart.

CD: Continuity is critical for a broadcast partner. Having all of the races on one family of networks is ideal from a television perspective. However, there is a dramatic rise in cord cutting taking place that cannot be ignored. Looking at recent trends, cord cutting has increased dramatically in the last few years. A global market research firm counted 1.9 million U.S. households that cut the cord in 2016 while in the first quarter of 2017 over 750,000 people cut the cord according to the Los Angeles Times. Point being, IndyCar has to be bold with their new TV deal as well and the online streaming to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is a great start. Having a deal with Amazon Prime video, Netflix or Hulu would help but not at the expense of having the races air on a network. The real trick is getting both to work seamlessly.

AB: Streaming. S-t-r-e-a-m-i-n-g.

I don’t watch traditional TV. At all. Everything is viewed either in person or on my laptop or phone, and I’m not the only one who views the sport like this.

A traditional cable TV package alone isn’t going to cut it next time, at least not if INDYCAR truly wants to maximize their reach. The sport would serve itself well to continue to push into emerging mediums like YouTube – which they already handle well – Facebook Live, Instagram and others.

Plus, I’d love to be able to stream a whole event through a driver’s visor cam. How cool would that be? Make it happen, INDYCAR.

JB: With both the national and international TV deals expiring at the end of 2018, this is certainly an opportune time to capitalize on an ideal package. The process has already begun with Hulman and Co. CEO Mark Miles heading oversees. The series has forward thinking and has actively used social media to promote the brand with practice, qualifying and MRTI race sessions – and there’s been gains.

However, and I believe this will change as a new deal arises, I would love to see a network fall in love with everything INDYCAR is and has the potential to be. The racing speaks for itself, MRTI is proving to be the world’s leading training ground for young talent, and INDYCAR is the most competitive series in the world.

Every time the drivers are doing TV bits –Dancing with the Stars, Family Feud, etc. – the majority become captivated by their personality and/or story. I want TV to sell that – through network, streaming, whatever else becomes available. This series has character, integrity, edginess and danger – there’s no losing if someone goes all in.

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