No one person took a greater hit in terms of respect and support during the often troubled behind the scenes half of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season than its CEO Mark Miles, who enters his fourth season at the helm of the sport of open wheel racing. The target for the future is clear in the eyes of IndyCar’s most focused on individual outside of the teams and drivers themselves. To return the sport to an ascending factor that will be clear to those who watch events on television and/or attend races in person.
“We expect to continue to increase the television audience.” explained Miles during IndyCar’s media day on Tuesday in Indianapolis. “We increased ratings and viewership on average over the last two years by 25 percent. I think we’ll get over 50 percent in total increase over the three years by the end of (2016).”
Miles explained that this focus was one of the reasons that IndyCar delayed its revealing of the 2016 season slate until November of last year. One target to make the increase more attainable in Miles’ eyes was to avoid situations in which major sporting events were put in direct competition with IndyCar itself. This initially led to an earlier finish to the open wheel racing season last year to avoid battling for television viewership against the National Football League broadcasts and appears to have increased in concern this year to avoid direct battles against two potential roadblocks in 2016: NASCAR and the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, the latter of which will be broadcast greatly on the NBC Sports Network, during the midpoint of the IndyCar season slate.
Events will not start at the same time as NASCAR events will be televised as much as possible, while the Olympics conflict comes directly into play involving the 500-mile IndyCar event at Pocono Raceway in August. The event takes place on the same day as the closing ceremonies in Brazil.
“Our broadcaster is covering the Olympics,” said Miles. “Pocono will run after the last sports competition of the Olympic Games this summer and before the closing ceremonies, which is a nice window, (and a) good opportunity to capture a broad audience.”
Also a concern of course for Miles and IndyCar entering 2016 is securing new races for the future and keeping things on a positive trend at its current race sites, especially those outside of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Penn Grade Motor Oil and the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Among the 2016 calendar is a return to Phoenix International Raceway, a regular early season stop for IndyCar over several decades as well as a comeback to Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin a track long desired by the sport’s most passionate to rejoin the season schedule.
“We are still maybe more than ever excited about the prospects for being back at Phoenix and Road America,” admitted Miles. “(The track promoters) are really excited (to have IndyCar back).”
Although television viewership increase in a major target, some who follow the sport feel such a dramatic change in the schedule could ultimately hurt the number of fans who pass through the entrance gates at the race sites themselves. For now, Miles appears confident that such a backlash will not surface and that a compromise between TV and onsite attendance can be achieved without major hardships felt on either side of the scale.
“We’ll see if (the schedule changes) affects the gate. It is difficult for a sport to balance the gate, local fan attendee consideration with television.” said Miles on Tuesday. “We don’t ever want to be reckless with the affinity and loyalty of fans who buy tickets to make the events work. We have to find a good balance. It isn’t perfect, but I think we’re getting a good balance.”
With all the potential positives for IndyCar is also several negatives that stared Miles and IndyCar in the face last year. The biggest among these were concerns about safety. One major element to this particularly involved the airborne flip induced accidents that occurred at both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and at Auto Club Speedway in California. The worst of those incidents six days before the 99th Indianapolis 500 knocked veteran James Hinchcliffe out of action for both the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and the remainder of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season. On Tuesday, Miles highlighted some of the additions designed to combat these shortcomings on the race track.
“We’re adding dome skids to the bottom of the car, the floor of the car at superspeedways,” said Miles on Tuesday. “That means increased stability which I think is really important for the superspeedways.”
Miles also talked about extra measures to control car reaction when a vehicle is also moving backwards, a common cause for flips and rolls induced by the cars last season.
“There are new rear beam wing flaps, that are meant to kick into and have effect at 15 to 20 miles per hour if the car is going backwards, basically to keep it on the ground. This was developed with the cooperation of all of our manufacturing partners and some of the teams.” said Miles. “It was tested at the Texas A&M wind tunnel up to 230 miles per hour in the tunnel. There was no mechanical failure.”
And then of course came the worst element of the safety focus, which sprung up in Pocono, Pennsylvania where a large chunk of debris struck driver Justin Wilson in the head, leading to eventual fatal injuries. Miles explained that steps have also been taken to avoid these types of racing related consequences in 2016 and in the future of the sport likewise.
“At all tracks there will be tethers, there will be tethered rear beam wing and rear wheel guards,” explained Miles.
“At superspeedways there will be tethers to the nose and front wing main plate. We think that will be helpful from reducing debris and a safety perspective.”
Finally, with increasing interest comes also maintaining and increasing the car count and lowering the costs to race the full slate of events. Miles said on Tuesday that talks between the teams and manufacturers have produced some decent ideas that could be implemented soon, if not in 2016 to IndyCar racing.
“We’ve got an owners’ meeting, later this month.” said Miles. “This is something I’m excited about. The team owners believe there are ways, that won’t affect our appeal to fans, but can be sensible initiatives to reduce costs.”
Clearly not every goal will be hit to the full this season, but if progress can at least be made in each of these areas during the 2016 racing calendar, perhaps the image of the sport of IndyCar racing and perhaps that of Mark Miles himself as it current leader and trend setter will be viewed in a more favorable form.