Mark Miles and his team has dragged IndyCar out of the metaphorical gravel trap it found itself in. New cars, new teams, a stable schedule and a bumper TV deal for 2019 are the smooth asphalt the series will race upon for the foreseeable future.
Plenty of challenges remain of course – finding a new title sponsor perhaps the most significant – but the excitement around the series is palpable. Yet with that excitement comes another challenge: resisting the temptation to expand.
IndyCar: the antidote to F1 and NASCAR?
The IndyCar resurgence has undoubtedly benefited from the mistakes of others. NASCAR’s constant tinkering with its format, dull races and irritating ‘innovations’ are driving fans away.
Internationally F1 is not fairing much better as it wrestles with the ongoing Mercedes/Ferrari duopoly, ugly halo and processional racing.
New-for-2018 IndyCar seems like the perfect antidote: a grid full of potential race winners, (almost) completely natural racing, beautiful cars and a far more appealing cockpit protection solution in the works.
There have already been musings that now is the time for the series to ‘take advantage’. Effectively sucking up the lost NASCAR/F1 fans and moving in on markets where those championships are leaking support.
In fact the time is right to do absolutely nothing of the sort.
Too many risks and too few benefits
IndyCar’s longer term future will benefit much more from pushing expansion and particularly international expansion as far down the agenda as possible. There simply are too many risks and too few achievable benefits for IndyCar in trying to fill gaps left by others.
Fans caught up in the excitement and anticipation of the 2018 season, TV deals and the like are missing the detail.
Though the new NBC deal in 2019 might push the series back towards the big leagues, IndyCar viewership remains dwarfed by NASCAR’s ratings. And that is in the context of NASCAR’s steady decline over the past couple of seasons.
Across pretty much every measure of ‘success’ IndyCar is still the small fish in a big pond. Take your pick: race attendances; sponsor revenue; prize money; social media followership; rights and merchandising. Trying to take on either championship – even though weakened – would be incredibly foolhardy.
The momentum is with IndyCar and the series is bucking trends in terms of gaining viewers and race day spectators, relative to other auto racing championships. NASCAR and F1 may be leading the race but they started on the front row. IndyCar is making up places from a starting position on the outside of row 5.
Learning the lessons CART and ChampCar never did
The good news is that IndyCar’s current management team appears to have learned the lessons CART and ChampCar failed to, both pre- and post-split. The series is set on a path that will only take it outside of North America if the interests of the teams, championship and sponsors are well served.
That means transportation costs paid for by the promoter, cold hard cash to market the event and suitable start times for the core US market. These are red lines in effect for Miles and his team, hopefully meaning no more questionable race bids fronted by local mayors promising millions of dollars they do not have.
Disillusioned F1 fans might wish for a European race sometime soon. Similarly those who remember the glory days of IndyCar on the streets of Surfers Paradise probably long for a return. Neither should expect anything anytime soon. And by that I mean time periods measured in years and decades.
The IndyCar compass only points north and south
For any new international races to be even considered by IndyCar the focus is likely to remain exclusively on South America and a second Canadian race.
The failure of Esteban Gutierrez to land even a partial ride for 2018 means a Mexican race is now at best a 2020, not 2019, ambition for the series. But even then, without a local hero to pin promotion of the race on, any venture south of the border is a risk to the promoter and the series.
Brazil might be an option in the coming years. Particularly if F1 decides it has had enough of team personnel being held up at gun point on the way into the Interlagos circuit in Sao Paulo.
Whether IndyCar wants to run the gauntlet or not is another question (although for Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, it would just be like a normal evening in downtown Indianapolis).
Staying closer to home for the benefit of IndyCar
International fans of IndyCar – new and not so new – would love to see the series venture overseas. Right now however the interest of the series will be best served by staying much closer to home.
In continuing to make smart decisions and relying on the quality of the IndyCar product, the series will naturally pick up more F1 and NASCAR nomads along the way. And perhaps one day once all those new fans are completely devoted to the series, it can make plans to conquer Europe, Australia and the rest of the world.
Until then IndyCar will only be going as far east as Florida.