ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — The annual leadership press conference took place on Saturday morning from the streets of St. Pete. This is once again the site of the 2023 NTT INDYCAR Series season opener. Miles made note that St. Pete will serve as the season opener for the next two years as well.
In 2020, due to the pandemic, the season didn’t begin until early June at Texas. The 2021 season got started in late April at Barber. Last year, it was moved back to St. Pete and for the foreseeable future, will remain on the Gulf Coast track.
Miles expects another record crowd to be in attendance this weekend.
“I believe it’s going to be another record attendance this year,” he says.
“We’re seeing the success of the event get reinvested in the event. So it may not be what all of you cover, but if you go around, you can see a few million dollars in capital investments in the facilities and suites and in grandstands. And it’s just upping the game, and that’s exactly what we’re looking for with our promoters. So we’re really pleased with Green Savoree in doing that, and we are especially pleased that we were all able to announce that we have extended our arrangements with them for another couple of years and with Firestone.”
Last season, for the first time since 2003, this race was run in February, not the spring or even the Fall for that matter in 2020. In fact, that 2003 race was sanctioned by Champ Car as the last time an open wheel race was run prior to March. But, was this the right call? Last year’s race weekend proved that it was. It was a risk that paid off.
The March date was always coexistent with spring breaks around this country. It allowed families to make the trek to the Florida Gulf Coast and make the INDYCAR race part of their spring break plans. Now that it was in February, we wondered if it would be affected. Not only was it not, the crowd was larger now than it was ever before. INDYCAR and track officials noted that the crowd during last year’s race weekend was up 49% over 2019 and that an estimate crowd of 200k was here that weekend. Fans from 23 different countries and all 50 states were represented.
Now the race is back a week. Can March deliver again? Miles says, yes.
Florida is a strong market for INDYCAR with 4 cities ranked in the top 33 of viewership ratings. Ft. Myers-Naples was tops in the Sunshine State and 2nd overall. Tampa-St. Pete and Sarasota ranked 15th. West Palm Beach was 30th while Orlando-Daytona-Melbourne was 33rd.
In regard to St. Pete in general, the city generates an economic impact of approx. $48 million annually off this race alone.
Another city to where INDYCAR has a massive economic impact is Indianapolis. The Indy 500 is annually the largest single day spectator event in the world. Last year’s race held approximately 325k which was the largest attended Indy 500 since the 100th Running event in 2016.
Miles says this year’s ticket sales are already trending well ahead of last year’s at this point.
“For highlights that we expect to be big deals this season, the 500, I’ve got to say that again, I mean, we’re ahead in every sales category,” he notes. “There are going to be more people out there. We just expect really big things for the ongoing growth of May and also the Indy 500 presented by Gainbridge.”
After a highly successful two-day test last month, it was widely speculated that maybe the series would return sometime soon for the real thing. Mark Miles and Jay Frye disputed those notions.
“The first is in terms of the especially earned media. It was like having another race, an 18th race,” Miles said of the testing venue. “The following four, the viewership of it was fantastic in that context.
“Secondly, I probably said this to many of you, as I mentioned when I commented on the investment that’s been made here to really begin a serious program to upgrade the quality and professionalism of the facilities, we’re trying to say to all of our promoters, we’re all taking a step up. The first step among lots of steps.
“And I thought that the Thermal facility was the perfect example. So we could just sort of say this is kind of what we mean. You know, they didn’t cut any corners on anything when they constructed that place. Their customer service was — they just were doing back flips to figure out how to solve problems and make us all feel very welcome. It was really a great example of the way we look to continue to improve our events on the INDYCAR SERIES.”
On whether the series will host a points paying race there?
“To me it’s what we did with it with having an open test there was perfect because the weather is great,” said Jay Frye. “It’s a great time of year. It filled a big need because we can’t really go many places that too many of year because of the weather.
“So I don’t see necessarily a race per se happening, but for an open test perspective, it was great.”
Mark Miles agreed.
On Leaders Circle Reduction
One of the under the radar occurrences this past offseason was that the series deducted some monetary value out of the leader circle program. This is a program that rewards the top 22 in the entrant points and typically awarded each over $1-million annually. However, without notice, INDYCAR deducted that from the teams as much as $150k per position.
Miles says that it was part of the way to add more money to the marketing budget. Instead of it being all one sided, the series thought that the teams should have some stake into marketing them, so the easiest way forward was instead of asking for money, it was to just limit the amount available in the leaders circle program.
“I understand that we went through the period of planning and could we get the unscripted series done so it was reliable, it was going to happen, and could we put the revenue, the money together really, to fund the investments to do all this? So we were quiet, so people wondered what was going on,” said Miles.
Miles notes that it all started with the winter meetings with both drivers and teams and felt like everyone was aligned with this way of thinking.
“In my mind as soon as we were in a position, which really started with the drivers meeting in Indy I think December 8, something like that, I have only seen support. I think the drivers are certainly aligned, and I think the team owners are, too.
“The other thing, I’ll save somebody the question of asking is, yes, we asked the teams. It wasn’t voluntary, but we sort of polled the teams on the idea that we might reduce by about $150,000 per leader circle entry, a total of $3.3 million, to further extend our investment. It’s a minority share of our investment for the whole thing.
“We heard some comment that maybe everybody wasn’t aligned with that idea. Again, from our perspective, nothing is ever completely universal, but I think it’s been really positive. I think everybody is aligned on the growth of the series and eager to do what they can do to be part of it.
“As we were finalizing our plans and we looked at how much we felt like we could invest and the way of increased spend in this area, we came on to the thought that maybe the teams would contribute to or could. And so in the course of a couple of days we called all the team owners and said, this is what we want to do. Nobody that I know of said no or don’t or please don’t.
“So, yeah, it was — you know, we were moving forward one way or the other with at least the investment that we had already kind of circled with internal funds, and to be able to add another useful amount of money, we thought made a lot of sense, and I did not get what I would call pushback.”
Honda/Chevrolet Maxed Out
With the debut of the new hybrid power system next year, it will come without a third OEM. As a result, it’s a massive investment for both current OEM’s in place now. Some wondered if the car counts would suffer as a result. Luckily, Frye says that he doesn’t foresee that happening. However, both are maxed out and that bump day would look like it has in recent years as a result.
“Both Chevrolet and Honda do a phenomenal job, but they’re tapped out, and we’re to the point where they’re exceeding expectations on inventories and that type of thing,” Frye said on the lack of a 3rd OEM currently.
“So the hybrid piece will add to that. Indy is a part of that, right? I think we get to a point where 34, 35 cars is probably the max we could currently have with the capacity that we currently have. So a third would certainly help expand that.”