IndyCar Boss Looks Down The Road

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 10 2009
Brian Barnhart welcomed a title sponsor to the IndyCar series last Thursday. He then sat down with RacinToday's Mike Harris to answer questions. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

Brian Barnhart welcomed a title sponsor to the IndyCar series last Thursday. He then sat down with RacinToday's Mike Harris to answer questions. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

Indianapolis – Things are finally looking up for the IZOD IndyCar Series.

As all good open-wheel fans know, the crushing 12-year conflict between the Indy Racing League and the now-defunct CART and Champ Car series ended just before the 2008 IndyCar season began, building hope for a new era of greater competition and growth.

Unfortunately, the crash of the economy last fall only exacerbated the problems that the IRL had been facing for years. TV numbers and attendance at the events continued to wane, teams were forced to compete without big-dollar sponsors – and, in some cases, no sponsors at all. Top drivers lost rides because of the lack of sponsors and other drivers were looking to jump to the more successful NASCAR , attracted mostly by dollar signs.

But  just as it appears the economy is beginning to recover, it appears the IndyCar Series is on the cusp of making some major gains.

The biggest news came last week when apparel company IZOD signed a lucrative six-year deal to become the title sponsor of the series. Added to the fact that Dario Franchitti came back from an ill-fated NASCAR adventure to win the 2009 IndyCar Series championship and that Danica Patrick, arguably the most important driver in the series because of her marketability, has agreed to stay on for at least three more seasons, things are definitely looking up.

Brian Barnhart, president of the competition division of the Indy Racing League, looks at the IZOD announcement as the dawn of a new day for the IndyCar Series. The following is a Question and Answer session with RacinToday.com following last Thursday’s title sponsor announcement:

RacinToday: What does the deal with IZOD mean for the future of the IRL?

Barnhart:  “We’re looking forward to a great partnership and relationship with them. It would be fair to say that this series needed a shot in the arm and is at a turning point. This is a great start. We’ve been looking for this for years. We’ve had several years go by without a title sponsor and you can probably that is the first legitimate and credible title sponsor we’ve ever had in our existence. So it goes a long way toward kick-starting that momentum in a great fashion.

“I think that the best thing it brings for us is the marketing expertise that they bring and the fact that it’s a non-endemic property, that they’re outside the motorsports realm. They’re going to try to take us into the mainstream, into pop culture. And all of that will raise the awareness of the series.  And, if we get more eyeballs watching the series, both in the grandstands and on television, that’s going to increase the value of this series. You increase the value of the series and then the next domino that falls you increase the likelihood that the owners are able to acquire sponsorships. If they get those sponsorships, then they can retain the drivers. It’s all kind of a domino effect and this is absolutely the first positive step that had to happen.’’

RacinToday: What are the next steps that are needed?

Barnhart: “I’d start with the operation and competition side of it. We’re really moving down a path of reducing the cost of participation, both in terms of chassis and engine costs for the series. And when the new chassis-engine package comes on board, most likely in 2012, that will be the primary focus: to reduce costs in both arenas while still running the most diverse race schedule out there. That will also improve the stability of the teams and the opportunity for new teams to come on board, to increase the value of participation in the series from that aspect of it.

“There’s also a focus of trying to attract new engine manufacturers and we still have ongoing dialogue with three additional manufacturers in addition to our existing partner, Honda, for a total of four manufacturers that have expressed a desire to build engines and participate beginning in 2012.’’

RacinToday: Will the series stick with current chassis-builder Dallara as the exclusive supplier or try to add some competition?

Barnhart: “We’re looking a little bit of both. We’re not opposed to opening things up, as one business model would show it. And we’re also not opposed to staying with an exclusive supplier on the chassis side. We’re just going to try to measure both those out right now before making a decision on which way to go, on which would be the best financial way to go.’’

RacinToday: The IRL has been criticized for moving its TV package from ABC/ESPN to Versus, which did a good job on the coverage but failed to reach many people. Is there an upside to the TV situation entering the second year with Versus?

Barnhart: “Hopefully, the upside to it is that they have told us since day one that they’re going to model us after the National Hockey League relationship that they have. The upside to it is they hit our number exactly what they told us it would be. The downside is we lost viewership this year. There’s no denying that and that’s not a direction you want to be going. But they hit the number. They told us exactly what it would be and they’re happy with that. And, if they’re accurate with that, we can hope that they’re accurate with their projections of growing us as they did the NHL. Then the upside is we’re going to be growing at a rapid rate and seeing some great benefits of being with Versus in the near future.’’

RacinToday: Is any of the money that will be spent by IZOD going to directly benefit your teams?

Barnhart: “Part of the deal will help increase and enhance the team fund, which is the team enhancement allocation matrix. There will be a pass-through amount of money that is added directly to the teams that are participating in the Leader’s Circle and help with the team fund as well.’’

RacinToday: What’s the field going to look like in 2010?

Barnhart: “You know it is a little early, but I was kind of peeking at it the other day. I don’t want to paint myself into a box, but you could be looking at somewhere between 22 and 26 cars full-time, depending on what some of them develop and which ones don’t. But it’s really looking like there’s some potential for some new teams and some existing teams to add cars. It should really add, along with the IZOD announcement, a lot of momentum to come out of the gate strong in 2010.’’

RacinToday: It appears most of the top drivers from 2009 will be back in2010. Is that an important part of the equation for success?

Barnhart: “The IZOD announcement adds a lot to the stability factor because of the length of the agreement. But it also has a lot to do with the ability of a fan to create a relationship with a driver, knowing that driver is going to be there for a long time. It’s certainly great to get Dario back (from NASCAR), and you could really tell that he was more comfortable and back where he wanted to be. And you look at Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves and the stability we have with Danica and Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti. And Graham Rahal is going to be in that position as well. He’s a nice young guy who is going to be with us for a long time. Ed Carpenter had a really good season this year. I thought his run at Kentucky was the best race he’s ever had with us. So we’ve got an opportunity for some stability the fans can attach to the drivers from their standpoint.’’

RacinToday: IRL founder Tony George stepped down as CEO of the league on July 1, leaving you and Terry Angstadt, president of the commercial division of the IRL, to run the day-to-day operation with both of you reporting to Jeff Belskus, new CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. How has the new hierarchy been working?

Barnhart: “It hasn’t really changed much from Terry and my point of view. We still have very, very interactive dialogue with Tony. He’s still very much a part of what we’re doing. You know he’s on the board (of directors) of the speedway. And, whether it’s him or Jeff Belskus or any of them in there, we’re getting good direction and leadership from those guys. But Terry and I are the ones being charged with the everyday operation of it and we’re very comfortable with that right now.’’

RacinToday: After some criticism of the racing on ovals early in the season, the league made some aerodynamic and engine changes that improved the competition.  Will there be more changes heading into next season?

Barnhart: “I think we’ll probably stay with the changes that we instituted, I believe at Kentucky (on Aug. 1)  when we put them on, and continue to work with Firestone and Honda. You know the Firestone alternate tire concept works very well on the road and street courses . The Honda push-to-pass  button does a great job as well and adds a unique factor to it. Along with the aerodynamic changes that we made available, we’ve given the team some tools. I thought we finished the season very strong with the product we put on the racetrack and that’s a good place to start 2010.’’

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 10 2009