The NTT IndyCar Series kicks off their long awaited 2021 season this weekend at the Barber Motorsports Park. On Wednesday, Mark Miles, Jay Frye and Chip Ganassi took part in a zoom conference all with reporters to discuss the upcoming year.
Here are my top five takeaways from the call.
Anticipating A Big Season
INDYCAR is on the upswing and with how many big storylines are coming out for 2021, this has the year being among what could be the best one yet. That’s not to steal a line from NASCAR either. It’s just that you have three star studded rookies joining a field of eventual Hall of Famers with some HOF caliber drivers coming back to the series on a part time basis.
“Well, the start itself is exciting,” said Miles. “Everybody is ready to go. When I think about 2021, I get particularly excited about the NTT INDYCAR Series schedule.
“If I just walk through that for a second, can’t wait to be in Alabama at Barber this weekend, but we go from there in consecutive weekends, as everybody knows, to St. Pete. That’s going to be really terrific to be back there, to the Texas Motor Speedway.
“We have a weekend off, and then we’re at May. We know what May brings. We’ve got the two races and the time trials in between, and all the exciting practice, Fast Friday, Carb Day, all the exciting things in between. And then Belle Isle with a week in between.
“Six of our first eight races in a compact schedule by our historical standards are on network, plus at least one of the qualifying sessions will be on network here in Indianapolis.
“I think it’s a really, really potent start that we’ll get our fans refocused on the INDYCAR Series, and then we have kind of the traditional summer, which we’re excited about, except that we’re adding Nashville.
“I hear every day from fans who want to know how they get their tickets for Nashville. The anticipation there is fantastic. We think it’s going to be a great event, a terrific addition to the series.
“And then we finish really strong. I don’t mean to leave any events out at all, but we finish with the oval at the Worldwide Technology Raceway, and then three consecutive weekends on the West Coast, from Portland to Monterey to Long Beach, and two of those three on network, totaling nine races on network, more than we’ve had in the history that I know about.
“And so we’re really excited. I just think it’s going to be a terrific schedule. We have some events that won’t be at full capacity for sure, but I think they’re going to happen, and I think the racing will be great, and we’re putting together with the schedule a platform that will really be powerful for fans.”
Frye agreed, saying that while Miles notes the schedule, he notes the competition level is a generational type of field we have for 2021.
“Well, it’s really hard to know where to start with the rookie class, a seven-time champion, a three-time champion, and a ten-year F1 veteran; you know, 45, 35 and 25 basically raw numbers,” Frye said.
“To me this is kind of a generational thing. This might be a once in a lifetime thing that we see something like this. We’re really excited. The good thing about these three is they’re great people on and off the track. They’ve taken this very seriously. It’s going to be amazing to watch their progress over the course of the year. Really excited to have them.
“We’ve got three Hall-of-Famers coming back joining us in one way or another this year with Tony, Helio, and Juan, so that’s pretty cool. We’ve worked very hard with the speedway program. We had a test last fall. We did a couple tests this year already. We’re really excited about what the speedway program is going to look like in 2021.
“Speaking of the speedway, our weekly car count is remaining very strong, and it’s going up, which obviously bodes well for the car count for the 500, which I think there’s going to be some really exciting news to come out of that here shortly.
“Car count is going to be up.”
Miles agreed on this crop of rookies too saying that they bring big followings with them, and that they’re hearing from France, hearing from New Zealand, Australia, obviously the NASCAR Nation, those fans.
“We might all want to be able to guess what’s going to happen, but the fact is we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Miles continues. “They have this big following that comes with them for our fan base and these new eyeballs that will be watching. It’s just going to be exciting to see what happens. It’s what sport is all about.
“In addition to the things that Jay said about how they’re really good people, we’ve enjoyed getting to know each of them. But man, the stories that will follow from this. There will be ups and downs, but a lot of people will be watching.”
The TV contract is up for renewal after this season, so INDYCAR is doing their due diligence in shopping around to seeing what network that they can get the right monetary gain on. They’re not shutting the door on a return to NBC Sports, it’s just that they have to see what the market is out there from other networks. In terms of when they’d make a decision, Miles said he hopes to have a deal done this spring but isn’t ruling out it coming a little bit after the Indy 500 in May either.
“I think this spring. It could be before. It could be just after the 500,” said Miles. “We’re in the process, having the discussions, and I think it should lead to some conclusion let’s say by the beginning of June, somewhere in there.”
The race north of the border this year looks to be in doubt again. With rising COVID cases in the city as well as Ontario in general, there’s a strong possibility that the series doesn’t go out of the country again in 2021. See, Toronto is a street course and would need to be built. With the restrictions in place, is there even going to be enough time to do so?
Then you have to factor in travel for the teams to get from the United States to Canada under stricter rules in place as well as can any fans even attend?
It’s a logistical nightmare.
Miles said that they hope that they can figure out a way to still race in Toronto as it’s still on the calendar and the plan. The thing is, he hopes to have some clarity provided by June 1st to know whether or not this year is feasible.
“I hope that that date wasn’t a coincidence from a racing point of view, that it left open to window to see if things could come together for us to be up there this summer,” said Miles. “If not, I don’t think there will be much opportunity to move it. The rest of the schedule is pretty full and there’s so much going on in Toronto, and that street race requires a lot of planning.
“So we would probably look to replace it on a one-off basis, and I think we have great options for how to do that, even if we learn about it at the last minute.”
Miles said that if they need to, the most likely step would be a double-header on a weekend that they’re already scheduled.
“I won’t speculate at this point as to which one it would be, but I don’t think — we wouldn’t be looking at putting a different race in that date,” Miles said. “We’d be looking at adding one on a weekend we’re already scheduled and planning to execute.”
The most logical fits would be a doubleheader at Mid-Ohio which takes place on the July 4th weekend or at Portland in September. Both tracks share a promoter with Toronto. Portland makes the most sense in the fact that they didn’t have a race there last year either and having two races could help the cash flow.
Condensed Weekend Schedules
INDYCAR learned something big from COVID that they can carry over to future years and that’s the value of condensed weekend schedules. No longer do we need to show up on a Friday and pound the pavement for two practice sessions, only to come back to have another on Saturday, qualifying later in the day on Saturday, come back on Sunday to have a warm up then race. That’s a lot of unnecessary mileage.
Last year, INDYCAR found that you can get more done with less and in turn save money. NASCAR did the same without even practicing for all 32 races run during COVID last year as well as just qualifying once.
While some fans bitch that they want more on track activity, the reality of the situation is that the show is better due to teams having to adjust as the race goes on and not having the luxury of practice to get their cars dialed in, but it saves so much money for all involved too.
This year, this rolled over to a standard weekend schedule that you’ll see stay around. On street courses, you’ll get one practice on Friday, one on Saturday then the race on Sunday with qualifying later in the day on Saturday’s. On natural road courses, you won’t even run at all on Friday’s and just have two practice sessions on Saturday followed by qualifying to wrap up the busy day and then warm-up and race on Sunday.
“One of the things we looked at is if you look at 2019 to 2020 to ’21 how we approach the way we do our business, how we approach the way we go to the events,” said Fyre. “Barber this weekend as an example. We’ve become more efficient, we think. If you look at 2019 we would have had two practices on Friday, one on Saturday and qualifying, and then a little bit of warmup and a race on Sunday.
“This year we won’t practice on Friday, we’ll have two on Saturday, qualify on Saturday, and then have a warmup and race on Sunday.
“We think from a fan’s perspective you get a lot more in a shorter period of time, which is economical for the fan. They don’t have to take Friday off, which is a good thing. And then with today’s attention spans it’s probably a really good thing. You get a lot more in a less period of time.
“From a team and league perspective or series perspective, it’s a huge financial gain. It’s a huge savings. Obviously there’s less days at the track, engine miles, travel, per diem, that type of thing. We’ve just condensed a lot of things based on what we learned in 2020.
“Again, we think it’s a little more efficient. We think it’s more impactful for everybody, so we’re excited to get the 2021 season started.”
Will this method stick past ’21?
“Yeah, possibly,” Frye said. “So at St. Pete we’re doing it a little bit differently because it’s a street course, so we try to make each event based on the type of venue, the schedule consistent.
“So St. Pete we will have a Friday afternoon practice. So it’s the same amount of time based on the track at St. Pete as we have at Barber, we just split it up a little differently.
“So we will practice Friday afternoon at St. Pete; we won’t have two practices on Friday.
“But again, I think it’s more efficient. We’re still getting close to the same amount of time on track. It allows us to come in a little bit later. It allows the promoter to create a bigger package per day for the fans, which, again, I think at the end of the day is probably good for them, too, or sufficient for them.
“We’ll see how it goes.”
Indy Package Worked Last Week
One of the main reasons as to why we even tested last week at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was to test out the changes made in the aero department between the race last August and the one this May. INDYCAR is always trying to better the show and they felt like changes needed made to tighten up the on track battles.
Well, after nearly 5,000 laps turned, not only were they pleased with what they saw, they were ready to race that day with it.
“So this has kind of been an 18-month process, right,” said Frye. “If you think about it, in 2018 when we came out with the new AK 18 aero kit there was things we did with the floor that we wanted to expand on and do more, and part of it was closing the floor up, so created more downforce to the bottom of the car, that type of thing.
“So it took a while to get it to where we needed it to be, and we feel really good about where it’s at. Again, over the last 18 months with simulation and CFD and that type of thing, and now we’ve had four track tests with the car, so far, so good.
“It looks like, again, we think it’s a very good product. We wanted to make it even better, so we’ve expanded on that. And from everything we’ve seen, especially there was 32 cars at the Open test here at IMS last Friday, ran almost 4200 laps, and the car looked very racy.
“We almost wanted to start the race that day. It just looked — everything looked right. It felt right. So we’re excited about Texas and the 500.
“It appears by the tests that we had, the changes we’ve made have worked, which we’re quite excited about, quite excited about the depth of the field, quite excited about the car count.
“So it’s going to be a good 500.”