During this offseason, something calling itself the IndyCar Drivers Association sent a letter to five very senior members of Penske Entertainment, asking for IndyCar to step up its marketing. It was, by most accounts, an ill-conceived and ill-constructed missive from a loose band of drivers, and apparently it went down like a cup of cold vomit with those at the top.
At the very least, it came across as a wholly unnecessary effort to point out the obvious – that IndyCar deserves to be more popular – and seemed to pay little heed to the fact that there are people working 20-hour days trying to improve the situation. It’s not as if the arrival of the letter was greeted by face-palm moments from the five recipients – “Gee! That’s what we’ve been doing wrong: we haven’t marketed ourselves!”
So, I shall spare the blushes of those involved in instigating the movement and those who decided to be board members. Those who expressly wished to not have their name associated with the letter included veterans and relative newbies. The reason for their reluctance was a belief that it would have been far more constructive to collate the drivers’ ideas, present them to Penske Entertainment’s Mark Miles, Bud Denker et al, and then commit to helping transform the marketing concepts into reality.
Make no mistake, I’m all for drivers in any branch of motorsport having a voice and I tend to get angry when they are treated like pawns or serfs, or are patronized, told to stay in their box and leave the big decisions to the grown-ups. But drivers must also learn to recognize that to many of those they address, “Association” is a synonym for “Union”, and that’s a word that makes business owners, team owners and other leaders exceedingly wary. The construction of a formal group – presumably the IndyCar Drivers Association board members had such aspirations – was automatically going to raise hackles. Far, far better for drivers to meet of their own accord whenever necessary (imagine cats self-herding), for someone to take minutes from those meetings, convert them into eloquent and convincing prose, and then for a couple of firm but reasonable drivers to approach the governing body to present ideas from the collective and discuss them.
Part of the irritation from the IndyCar suits on this occasion was that behind the scenes, unbeknown to the majority of drivers, there were already plans in place to make a big step in marketing the series. In case you missed it, on Thursday this week, IndyCar confirmed a six-part docudrama commencing in Spring, entitled 100 Days to Indy that will air on the CW Network.
Produced by Penske Entertainment and VICE Media Group, the six-part series will chronicle the start of the 2023 season and the build-up to the 500. Penske Entertainment president and CEO Mark Miles described Indy as “an unrivaled spectacle fueled by ambitious, fearless and captivating personalities”. He added, “Through the compelling creative lens and massive reach of both VICE and The CW, we will bring the world-class competition and drama of the NTT IndyCar Series to a newer and more youthful audience.”
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
We can forgive Miles his bombast, and the usual default prioritizing of youth, because he’s right to be enthusiastic: this is a huge deal. In the last few months, The CW became 75 percent owned by Nexstar, the largest TV station owner in the USA. If this series converts casual viewers into IndyCar followers, and new-found followers into die-hard fans, then it could be a big gain for IndyCar, in the same way that four seasons of Drive to Survive is said to have boosted Formula 1 interest in the USA. If 100 Days to Indy truly catches light, it will be a big gain for Nexstar, so it’s not inconceivable that there could be follow-up series which are pushed to bigger audiences yet.
Of course, Nexstar might not be in a mad dash to boost viewing figures of IndyCar’s race carrier NBC Sports since NBC is owned by rival Comcast, but it would be truly a mark of progress by IndyCar if, the next time its TV contract is up for renewal, there is a bidding war to cover its races… One can dream.
The 2017 and ’19 IndyCar champion, Team Penske-Chevrolet’s Josef Newgarden is thrilled that IndyCar has another platform, and that it won’t be a case of just preaching to the converted.
“We have to tell the story of IndyCar, explain why people who are already fans of it are so into it,” he tells Motorsport.com. “This series will force us to do that, and it will hopefully pull in new people, create new fans.”
In terms of comparisons to Drive to Survive, which has now run four seasons of 10 episodes each, Newgarden believes the six-part 100 Days to Indy is “a good starting point.”
He says: “It’s going to be very rapid, not a lot of wait time to see this content. It’s going to start pretty much when we begin testing for the 2023 season so you’re going to see a lot of content built around how we start our season, how the first couple of races go, how we prepare for Indy, and then Indy itself. It’s probably not going to be exactly the same as other content packages like Drive to Survive but it will be uniquely IndyCar.”
That, surely, is key – being uniquely IndyCar. And given that the series’ primary USP is diversity of tracks, it’s handy that the five races leading up to the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500, the ones from which VICE will be garnering footage, include road courses, street courses and an oval.
“Yeah, that’s critical,” says Newgarden, “and we must show the intricacies of our sport. I mean, I’m excited that we could draw in a new audience, but I’m also happy that we’re going to be able to showcase more of the secrets of our sport, ones that even a lot of current IndyCar fans don’t appreciate.
“Because when I think about IndyCar, I think about the secretiveness around trying to find an advantage and not letting anyone see the details of that. Everyone here is so particular about that, so I think this docuseries is going to be great about opening that up. For just one example, fuel-saving: I know a lot of people say that sounds boring but in reality it’s really fascinating and difficult to do well, especially across a portfolio of different types of racecourse. Going fast while saving fuel is such a big part of our racing, and explaining how being able to do that opens up new strategies for the team is the kind of detail I hope we can get into.”
Drive to Survive has been criticized for editing certain sequences to juice up the storylines, suggest ill-feeling that in truth was minimal or non-existent. And it’s the curse of any program that claims to be a “behind-the-scenes look” that it must overcome the skepticism of those who automatically – and quite rightly – question the authenticity of so-called reality shows. Newgarden reckons he won’t be suckered into hamming it up for the camera.
Newgarden has vowed to be himself in front of the cameras.
Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images
“No, I think my personality on camera is probably just going to be me,” he smiles. “If they choose to showcase me, I’m just going to be who I am – pretty serious when I show up at the track. I’m not going to change. But honestly, I don’t think any of us will need to act different for the cameras. There’s enough diversity between the personalities that if people are just themselves, the producers are going to have plenty of interesting storylines.”
It will be intriguing to see if Newgarden, and the Team Penske environment as a whole, can cope with the presence of intruders into hitherto private areas, as the crews seek footage of debriefs, strategy meetings, drivers’ meetings, etc.
“We’ve had some experience of this over the years,” he says. “I understand the dynamic of capturing the events of a weekend and having strangers in your space. This will probably be more intrusive, you’re right, but that’s part of the deal, and we’ve got to be more open to showing what our sport is. I don’t think there’s an easy way to approach this, but we must let people in to show what’s going on and still stay concentrated on the job at hand.”
The VICE squad’s mics and cameras could also provide some irresistible footage of high-pressure moments on pitlane during race day, such as when an untimely yellow throws everyone’s strategy out the window, or when a team j-u-s-t fails to call in its driver in response to his rivals’ tactics, and suddenly he gets shuffled from a podium position to outside the Top 10.
“Yeah, it will be interesting to show the difference between the great calls and bad calls,” says Newgarden. “It’s not just about drivers. I think the strategists and everyone on the pitstand are often under-praised for the job that they’ve done. Seeing those guys in real time, dealing with the tension, trying to orchestrate something like a sudden strategy change, adjusting on the fly… heck, it’s fascinating even from where I’m sitting. Yeah, this 100 Days to Indy should be able to give people a better perspective of what it takes to win a race.”
Newgarden means it when he says that these six episodes will be a good start… because he harbors ambitions of seeing it blossom into more episodes and regular series.
“I think if we do a good job and we provide good access and captivating details about why the sport is so difficult and why it’s so fun, and if we are able to show the various personalities, I don’t see why this can’t be a longterm thing that we expand down the road. I think it’s what IndyCar deserves because our racing is so good.”
Is the timing of this series good – in a year when Formula 1 will be expanding its reach to include three races in the U.S.? Newgarden says it is, and insists he doesn’t worry over F1 encroaching on IndyCar territory.
“I’m of the opinion that F1 increasing its presence here is only a good thing for other open-wheel motorsports like us,” he states. “I watch other forms of motorsport because I’m a fan of everything, and I get excited that there are more fans of this style of racing. It seems like a natural thing for F1 fans to follow IndyCar and IndyCar fans to follow F1, and potentially some of those F1 fans might come to like IndyCar more, especially if 100 Days to Indy gives us the chance to show them why our branch of the sport is so good. So I think a greater appreciation of F1 in this country will work for IndyCar, too.”
Helio Castroneves – evergreen but now in the twilight of his IndyCar career – is blessed with a personality around which you could base at least half the series. For those who wonder if his ebullience is fake, it isn’t. His former strategist and Penske team president Tim Cindric admitted that back in 2000, he had doubts that Castroneves’ constant enthusiasm was genuine, but swiftly realized it was – and that it never changed. “I’m convinced,” smiled Cindric, “that each morning Helio still jumps out of bed and punches the air and yells, ‘Yes! I’m a racing driver!’”
IndyCar’s bouncing Tigger would have less appeal to documentary producers if he were merely an occasional winner with a cheery outlook and a vulpine grin. Instead, Castroneves is one of the greats – 32 victories – and the most recent entrant in the Indy 500 four-time winners’ club. The fact he had to wait 12 years between victories #3 and #4 – and achieved that most recent triumph as a part-timer for Meyer Shank Racing after being cast aside by Team Penske – surely makes his story acutely appealing for a docuseries based around the build-up to the 500. Does he expect to be the focal point?
Helio will have no problem conveying excitement, disappointment and joie de vivre as he chases a record-breaking fifth Indy win.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
“I… don’t think I’ll be the focus, but I hope I’ll be on it,” he says earnestly, “because I’d like to give the people watching the show an understanding of the Indy 500. Everyone will have heard of it but not all of them will know enough to fully appreciate its meaning, its history. So I think it will be good to educate people, so when they say that I’m going for win #5 which has never been done, they will understand the difficulty.
“I feel like VICE and CW have so many stories and situations they can cover, it will be hard for them to choose which things to go in-depth with over the six episodes. My team owner Michael Shank – I know he will be an interesting story to cover, not only because of what he has achieved but also because of him putting everything on the line to build this team and be successful.”
Asked if IndyCar needed something like this some time ago, Castroneves replies: “Sure, it’s always great to have a network wanting to expose your sport to more people – there’s no bad time for that to happen. But you have to look at the circumstances we had. I think since Roger Penske took over IndyCar and the Speedway, that was always gonna help, but then right away we had the pandemic and a lot had to be done by Penske Entertainment just to keep the series surviving. But now it has not only survived but with this, we have entered a new chapter that I think should be great. I don’t see the negative side.”
One negative side for someone more camera-shy than Helio would be coverage of blunt exchanges between drivers, engineers, team managers, crew chiefs, etc., and also the potential revelation of confidential information, but like Newgarden, he believes protocols can be put in place to ensure video editors get what they need without strategies and technical insights being fully laid bare.
“I’m sure we’ll have some conversations away from the camera about what we can say in front of the camera,” he says. “But I don’t see it’s a big issue. I mean, whatever they record won’t be seen on TV until a while after it was important, so I think we can be quite open.
“I think it’s going to be great, actually, because I can see someone like Conor Daly really being fun in front of the camera – if he’s one of the drivers on the show. Right now, we don’t know who they’re going to focus on, but I would say they would have plenty of choices.
“But you know what? If they ask my opinion, it should not just be about the drivers. It can be team owners, team managers, mechanics, who they give exposure to. It’s only six episodes right now but I think it can be more and more. I want kids to watch and not just say, ‘Hey, I want to be an IndyCar driver.’ I want them to watch and say, ‘I want to be an IndyCar engineer, a truck driver, a mechanic, a strategist’… Team Penske has over 500 employees, at Meyer Shank, we have about 40 – we need more people throughout the team, in all the different jobs. And it’s not just us: this sport as a whole needs more people who want to do this, and I hope this show can make IndyCar look attractive to the guys who want to work in any role here.
Mechanics are unsung heroes who deserve recognition, and coverage of their work may entice would-be crew members.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
“You look at when Alex [Rossi] had his shunt in practice on Saturday at Barber this year, and his crew had to work so hard with members from other Andretti cars to get that car rebuilt in time for qualifying. They were heroes. It came together very late, but they just got out to pitlane on time, and then he qualified in the Fast Six. That is the kind of fantastic story to give the mechanics exposure, show how well they can perform under unbelievable pressure.”
Castroneves points out that 100 Days to Indy will need to emphasize different aspects of the sport than Drive to Survive because of the disparate natures of IndyCar and F1.
“I believe the reason that Drive to Survive popular is because Formula 1 is known for its exclusivity,” he observes, “so this series gives an inside look, and people think, ‘Holy crap, this is great, we’re right there where we can’t normally be!’ IndyCar is more open, so people know a bit more what it’s like, so the CW series needs to look at IndyCar from a different angle to focus on details. F1 blows everyone’s minds with its technology, all the cars are different; we need to emphasize how hard IndyCar is when everyone has the same car and very similar engines, so it’s tiny little details in technical changes, good strategy and good driving that make the difference here. So for the 500, the 100 Days to Indy needs to show the guys behind the scenes, preparation of the cars to give us the edge. We can look at things like sim work, how they wrap the cars, how they work so hard to reduce gaps in bodywork for less aero drag…. all the little things that make a big difference on a big fast oval.”
It’s hard to know at this stage what VICE’s researchers decide will best captivate newbies, casual fans and addicts to IndyCar. But Castroneves is right to point out: “Lack of entertainment is the least of our problems: on-track, we have a great product. off-track, the producers will have so many choices. Think how many nationalities there are in IndyCar, how many backgrounds – drivers and engineers who came from Formula 1, drivers who came up through the Road To Indy program, drivers who were on the European ladder but couldn’t find money to do F1.
“And because the action is so good, on and off the track, there’s no need to add drama, no need to have drivers saying ‘I hate you’ or things like that. It’s important to show IndyCar ‘naturally’, if you know what I mean. Believe me, our competitive natures will be the drama; there will be enough entertainment to get people to tune in for the next episode and the next.
“Honestly, I don’t believe six episodes is enough, so I really hope this is a success and they decide to do more.”
Yup, if it’s done right, let’s keep the cameras rolling. From the morning after the 500, there will be 104 more days to the season finale. “104 Days to IndyCar title showdown” isn’t quite as catchy a title, but that’s a triviality that can be figured out. Even before the cameras roll on the first six episodes, I’m confident everything else is in place for a must-see sequel, and that’s because the basic IndyCar product is right. Now it’s time to convey that to the wider world. And that might even satisfy the ‘IndyCar Drivers Association’…