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Gateway Race: IndyCar Series Returning To St. Louis

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 26 2016
Big time open wheel racing is returning to the St. Louis area in 2017. (File photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Big time open wheel racing is returning to the St. Louis area in 2017. (File photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

A return to Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis for a night race after a 13-year absence, and a multiyear agreement with historic Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, highlight the “16-plus-one” Verizon IndyCar Series schedule for 2017.

bugindycarStressing continuity, the calendar released Thursday in St. Louis includes a return of all venues on the 2016 schedule and features a total of six events on ovals, six on permanent road courses and five on temporary street circuits.

“I think it’s fair to say that all of the existing races have contracts for more than 2017, so I expect they’ll be back not just for ’17 but in the future, as well,” Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., parent of INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said during a media teleconference.  “The release of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule continues to build upon the success INDYCAR has experienced the last three years and establishes continuity and consistency in our event calendar.

“As a series we are working diligently to create long-term relationships with our promoters to establish date equity and to provide them with the opportunity to initiate ticket renewals and event promotions earlier, which is pivotal to continuing the increase in attendance at our events.”

INDYCAR experienced a 38 percent growth in both television ratings and viewership from 2013 to 2015 and the same numbers are up this season by a total of 7 percent compared to this time last year, according to the series. Attendance at INDYCAR events also is on the rise, with six events this season drawing crowds at or near record highs.

For the sixth consecutive season, the INDYCAR schedule will open on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. (March 12), in 2017 and conclude at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway (Sept. 17) _ the third straight year the championship will be contested on the scenic, 2.385-mile/12-turn road-course.

All events on the 2017 schedule will be broadcast by longstanding television partners ABC and NBC Sports Network. The final TV schedule will be released later this year.

The addition of Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill., on Aug. 26 marks a return for the series, which last competed at the venue outside St. Louis in 2003. The track has hosted seven Indy car races, including Championship Auto Racing Teams from 1997-2000 and the IndyCar Series from 2001-03.

“Today is a monumental day for the people of the St. Louis region,” said Curtis Francois, owner of GMP. “I am proud of the progress we’ve made at my hometown track. I knew some day we would be making an announcement like this because I have such confidence in the people of this region and their commitment to great sporting events. More than a dozen track operators around the country sought this INDYCAR race for their communities. I firmly believe we came out on top because of the energy, loyalty and commitment to great sports that sports fans of all kinds demonstrate each day in this community.”

Series star Helio Castroneves won the event in 2003 and Team Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya prevailed in 2000. Two other current drivers _ Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon _ also have competed at the 1.25-mile oval.

Watkins Glen International _ added as a replacement venue for the canceled Boston street race this year _ will host the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen this season on Sept. 4. Steeped in open-wheel racing history, the 3.45-mile permanent road-course will return on Labor Day weekend again in 2017 under a new multi-year agreement.

“The addition of Gateway Motorsports Park and the return of Watkins Glen International are integral to the continued growth of INDYCAR,” Miles said. “Gateway officials have been enthusiastic about the prospect of hosting a Verizon IndyCar Series event for some time and we’re excited to bring the series to the St. Louis market.

“Watkins Glen is an iconic American road course that is revered by our fans, drivers and teams. Our goal from the beginning was to establish a long-term agreement and we’re thrilled that we’ve been able to extend this relationship for the future.”

In a joint announcement made at the New York State Fair in Syracuse, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Watkins Glen International President Michael Printup, New York State Sen. Tom O’Mara, INDYCAR President Jay Frye and Team Penske’s Will Power lauded the series’ return to the Finger Lakes Region.

“In the end, this was the goal of both Watkins Glen International and INDYCAR _ to announce a multi-year agreement,” Printup said. “We are very much looking forward to next weekend’s Grand Prix at The Glen, and can’t wait to get started with our efforts to grow this event moving into the 2017 season. This would not be possible without the outstanding support that we receive from New York State and Governor Cuomo. It’s just a great day and a very exciting announcement for our fans and partners.”

In addition to coverage from ABC and NBCSN, all Verizon IndyCar Series races can be heard on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, available through network affiliates, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, the INDYCAR Mobile app and IndyCar.com.

Miles elaborated on a number of scheduling issues during the media teleconference, which also included Verizon IndyCar Series team-owner/driver Ed Carpenter and teammates Josef Newgarden and Spencer Pigot of Ed Carpenter Racing. An edited transcript follows:

QUESTION: Mark, one thing that’s very noticeable about the 2017 calendar is its continuity with this year’s schedule. How valuable was it having that level of consistency to IndyCar and its promoters?

MARK MILES: “Well, I think it’s fundamental. It’s really important to growing the sport because the foundation of the sport is the quality and the growth of our races, our events in the cities where we compete.

“You know, I had the opportunity to fly here to St. Louis this morning with these three gentlemen with me and on the way I showed the calendar to Josef Newgarden; he looked at it for about a second, we’re thinking 16-plus-one because the 16 races which we’re coming back year over year and the addition of Gateway is kind of one way to think about it. Turning a phrase, as he’s prone to do, he instantly says, ‘Oh, 17-in-‘17,’ which may become the new handle on the race.

“But the foundation of it and the priority for us is to the greatest extent possible have continuity from year over year with our races and date equity to just grow that base carefully, and I think the 16-plus-one or 17 for ’17 demonstrates that.”

Q: Mark, today’s schedule, as you mentioned, included the addition of Gateway Motorsports Park and a formal contract extension with Watkins Glen International. Tell us about the significance of those two venues.

MARK MILES: “Well, Gateway is the addition from ’16 to ’17, and I can tell you, we’re still in St. Louis, I couldn’t have been more pleased with what we saw today, where every sector of the community on both sides of the river turned out, and there’s great anticipation and enthusiasm. Elected officials from Washington through their state legislature and local mayors, all the not-for-profits that make an urban center what it is that are interested in growing the community from the chamber to their convention folks to develop downtown St. Louis, they’re all here, and a significant number of private sector business leaders were here.

“All the components seem to be coming together from an event perspective, and probably better that the drivers than I speak about the track. But Curtis Francois bought the track I think in 2012 or so, repaved it, has done a terrific job in making improvements, so those of our fans who think of it from many years ago will be delighted with what they see. It’s a terrific place, and it was designed for Indy car racing. It’ll be a compelling race for sure, another short oval we’re pleased to add.

“So that’s terrific. And Watkins Glen came to us and was added to the Verizon IndyCar Series with very little notice this year. We’re looking forward to being there in less than a couple weeks and expect a great event. So to be able to extend them even before the first race was part of the plan to lock-in the great races that we have.”

Q: From a drivers’ perspective, an IndyCar driver really has to be good at all disciplines. How much of a challenge is the 2017 schedule with its six ovals, six road courses and five street courses?

JOSEF NEWGARDEN: “I think from a driver standpoint, the IndyCar Championship is really kind of a dream championship if you seek to be the best at all disciplines. If you seek to be the best and the most well-rounded driver within the world, I think IndyCar is really the only championship that offers that.

“So for me, I like the challenge that when you’re working with your team, your engineer throughout the season, you have to be able to switch between a street course, road course and an oval back-to-back-to-back every weekend in facing a challenge of going from one to the other every time. It’s not easy for a lot of people to do, and I think experience shows really well in IndyCar, and the reason it does show well is because of the challenge that you have with the diversity of the schedule.

“For me personally, having Gateway added on is just a bonus. It’s one of those type of tracks that I really like. I think it’s going to put on a great show for IndyCar, and it’s going to add more to the diversity of what we already have.”

Q: Ed, you went out to Gateway to do some testing for compatibility for the car. Talk a little bit about Gateway as a facility and how you think it will race with the current Indy car.

ED CARPENTER: “I think it’s going to be a really good track for the current (Dallara) Indy car. It’s a very unique and demanding track. Turns 1 and 2 are very tight, 3 and 4 are a little more open. Having probably a little more downforce than the cars had when they were last here in 2003, I think it’s just going to be a good thing for the quality of racing, the quality of show that we can put on for the fans. And from the enthusiasm that we’ve seen here in St. Louis today, I think we’ll be looking for an exciting event.”

Q: Mark, this announcement comes several months earlier than last season. How beneficial was getting the schedule out to the series and to the stakeholders?

MARK MILES: “Well, we thought it was important. You know, if you’re committed to making the foundation of a current year the bulk of the schedule the next year, then we didn’t see any reason we couldn’t do it. And I think it’s important from the point of view of the next step, which is careful tailoring, crafting of the television schedule. But also for the tracks; here happily we are in August, and we’re announcing a schedule and they have a year to prepare.

“I think every promoter would relish, as we have in Indianapolis frankly, the opportunity to be selling next year’s tickets at this year’s race. In order to do that, we’ve just got to get ahead of the game.

“So for the promoters, I think for fans who will travel, for our broadcasters, for our teams as they prepare, this plus for them the test schedule that will come out before long, the sooner the better, and we’re delighted. We kind of put the stake in the ground that we’d get this out in August, and I think we’re still in August, so we’re delighted to have met the goal.”

Q: Mark, will you have any success in maybe talking Iowa (management) into going to a night race again? And can we assume Gateway will be an evening show?

MARK MILES: “Let me take them in reverse order. I do think you can assume Gateway is going to be under the lights, and people here are excited about that. They know IndyCar sparkles, looks great and might take a little bit of the edge off the summer climate in the Midwest.

“For Iowa, I think next year that is less likely because it looks like a Sunday, and Sunday night is tough, and I think that’s probably us trying to do the best job we can at balancing the interests of the fan who travels and the fan who wants to be at the track with the even larger number of fans that want to tune in if it’s broadcast at a time that works for them.”

Q: Assuming that you want to expand the schedule, what’s the philosophy on whether you’d like to take races to more traditional markets where you assume you already have fans and potential ticket buyers or trying to feed the series into more maybe higher-risk/higher-reward areas than aren’t as accustomed to the series?

MARK MILES: “I don’t think you can make a blanket answer to say we’re less risk-averse or more. I think we can look at each opportunity individually and evaluate it for all that it brings to us. We were pleased to say to the assembly here in St. Louis that they got the one spot we decided to add to the calendar for next year through a rigorous process that went on for months. Some of you are aware of and have written about it, and there were options to be sure, lots at the start, narrowed to some finalists and we think there will be even more for next year.

“Our philosophy about growth is careful, managed growth where we add to fill in gaps on the schedule, and those to me looking at next year, we still believe there may be an international opportunity at the very beginning of the year to be abroad, and that will do lots of things for us if we can find a great opportunity for ’18 in February. And then there may be one more opportunity to add during what we currently have kind of staked out as the heart of the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule in North America.

“So I don’t see it expanding in the next year or so in any major way. But given the demand and the interest, I think we’ll have good choices and can be quite careful.

“We think about all the factors from the balance we want to try to keep in terms of the type of racing, which we’ve already talked about, in terms of urban versus more park-like as we have now in so many of our races, Midwest versus other regions of the country. We’re pretty Midwest-based, and I think there’s an appetite west, northwest, east or southeast in this country, urban versus more rural.

“Fundamentally, the most important thing, irrespective of what kind of track and where it is in the country or the world, we want races like we have for the most part where the race is an event that captures the imagination of the community and more and more people come every year _ which makes for a great event, young people, traditional fans want to be part of on-site, and makes for great television, because not just what happens on the track is compelling but there’s the vibe that’s communicated out for television viewers, as well.”

Q: The only noticeable date change…it looks like is Phoenix moving from start of April to end of April. With Phoenix and Long Beach back-to-back, was that considered, or was Phoenix always going to move, always owing to other considerations?

MARK MILES: “Yeah, there was a big other consideration. When Phoenix came on for this year we knew that in ’17 Phoenix would host the NCAA Final Four, and we agreed with them that it’s better to avoid that in that community. That’s a lot of fan choice and a lot of focus from the local media. That’s the reason that it changed from ’16 to ’17. I think that makes sense. And I think the schedule still works fine for our competitors.

“We are looking at what that might look like in ’18, and whether it stays more or less where it is or whether it goes back to…I guess we can’t call it the traditional date since it’s been one year, but the ’16 date, and that’s a decision we’ll make obviously in the context of putting out the ’18 calendar.”

Q: Could you please tell us what it would take for either Auto Club Speedway or Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca or even Portland to make the schedule? Is it a question of competing quality of bids, competing events, weather, a combination of it all?

MARK MILES: “It’s a combination of it all, to be sure. I think we talked a lot about Fontana about a year or so ago where their needs in terms of climate and time of day and even the sunset, which affects our drivers’ ability to be safe and run a great race, which affects the time of the race, which affects broadcasts in eastern time. It’s all related, so that one we just couldn’t sort out. Laguna Seca, interesting track, race history. We are kind of in that part of the world if you consider Sonoma/Northern Cal along with Laguna. Sonoma seems to be kind of solidifying a place for us as the season finale, which we love, and I think our fans and our stakeholders appreciate.

“So, whether there is another time when it could make any sense to be so close to that Sonoma race geographically is the question. You might say, well, let’s go to the spring, and maybe there could be a place on or calendar in the spring, but then you have a conversation about, well, how early in the spring could they run there and feel confident about the climate. I don’t mean to go on at too great a length, but all those things enter into it, and those two examples have been very carefully and completely thought through, through discussions with us and with the promoters.

Portland has a great history and is…an interesting region for us. So I don’t know. I don’t know that you’ve heard the end of the possibilities for Portland.”

Q: Have any of those three tracks come closest to making the schedule this year?

MARK MILES: “As tempting as it is, we decided that we want to encourage communities’ interest in going down and getting in the process, so I’m not going to list finalists. Nobody lost. Some are just re-upping for next year’s consideration. So I’m really not going to directly address or answer your question. But we’ve learned a lot through this process. I know a lot more about a number of communities’ interests in places like Portland and others that I think offer great options for the future of the IndyCar Series.”

Q: Obviously there was reporting in the last several weeks about the 2018 schedule also being announced in the near future. Is that still a possibility, or is that now more kind of moved back to not to be expected soon?

MARK MILES: “I loved the idea of putting out the ’17 and ’18 calendars at the same time, and we were really close to doing it; that’s exemplified by the fact that I’ve already told you that I expect everybody that’s on the calendar for ’17 to be on the calendar for ’18. But there are still a couple of details like the one I mentioned with Phoenix as to which week _ the approach to which week would make the most sense for them, and that’s something we’ll be talking about.

“And we do think there’s still some prospects that need a little more time to be fully developed for both international and other domestic opportunities for ’18. So we decided not to go.

“The other thing is the further out we get, the harder it is to really fine-tune the television broadcast schedule, and that matters to us. As you know, we’ve made real progress with our broadcast partners in finding optimal broadcast times, which help us attract more viewers. We want to continue that focus. The further out you get, the harder it is to pick the exact date when you know a little less about their other programming, so we’ll take a little more time.

“But saying all that, I don’t think we have to wait until August of ’17 to release the ’18 calendar. I can’t give you the date on which we’ll do it, but I do expect that it’ll be even earlier before ’18 than it was before ’17.”

Q: To clarify, Mark, you said most of the current tracks have multiyear contracts right now but not all, correct?

MARK MILES: “Actually I think everybody goes through ’18.”

Q: So that’s pretty firm. You don’t see any chance of an addition to the 2017 schedule?

MARK MILES: “I don’t expect that, and I don’t know where that would come from. At least the Verizon IndyCar Series Championship I think is set.”

Q: And finally, you touched on the testing which will come out. Do you expect a severe reduction in in-season testing?

MARK MILES: “I don’t know about ‘severe,’ but I think it will be changed in a way that changes the mix of preseason and during the season team and private tests and open tests, and Jay is going to put that out I think pretty soon. I think maybe just on or before Watkins Glen if things work out as he has in mind, along with some other important technical news.”

Q: Mark, with Watkins Glen re-upping for another two years and obviously Pocono earlier announced that they’re going to be there for the next two years, can you just talk about the importance of IndyCar having two races in a northeastern market?

MARK MILES: “I think it’s important, and I think it’s an opportunity for the two to collaborate and help each other and IndyCar grow the northeastern market. There are a lot of IndyCar fans there, and to see both the oval and the road course racing with the traditions of Watkins Glen and all that Pocono has to offer should be very attractive to fans. So we’ve got our kind of beachhead in the northeast, and it helps anchor that part of the geography for us.”

Q: As follow-up, is there any thought to perhaps adding another 500-mile race at some point to the schedule where you maybe would bring back the Triple Crown that would include Pocono and Indy?

MARK MILES: “I don’t think I can say that that’s an objective. Again, we’re probably more focused on looking at the opportunities to kind of flesh out the rest of the geography in the country where we think there’s demand and the mix of different kinds of tracks and urban and park-like. Those things probably trump three 500-mile races and the Triple Crown at this point.”

Q: Josef, obviously you’ve been very strong on ovals this season. How excited are you going to be going to Gateway next season?

JOSEF NEWGARDEN: “I think selfishly I’m pretty excited about it. I feel like ECR as a group have really put out great race cars on short ovals. When we had Milwaukee, as well, on the schedule, I thought we were quite strong there, and that carried over to Phoenix and Iowa. I think Ed and me had a really good opportunity to find success at Phoenix earlier in the year, and it didn’t quite come together for really either of us, but I feel like we have great cars on short ovals and that type of package, and I love them. I actually think it’s some of the best racing that we have in IndyCar on short ovals. I hope that we put on a great race there. I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to.”

Q: Mark, now that you’ve got date-equity pretty much handled with the ’17 races for next year, are there any moves afoot to make certain that the times become regular like they are with NASCAR and with other series? And the possibility of having earlier times?

MARK MILES: “Yeah, so that’s the next level of difficulty, and it doesn’t escape our focus. Obviously as I think I may have mentioned before, we have to work with our broadcast partners to find the right balance between the show, the event on-site for the fans who buy tickets and come out, and the fans who will tune-in on television. One of the things that we’ve found is that it’s better for race fans I think generally if we can minimize overlaps with NASCAR coverage. I’m not in any way defensive about saying that. We think there are a meaningful number of fans of both series, and we’d like for all of them to be able to watch both kinds of racing.

“You know, it’s just easier said than done, and I think we’re getting better at it. The more we are predictable from year to year and years-out in picking the days, the more likely we are going to be able to get the time of day part more consistent. So it’s an objective. It’s going to take time.”

Q: My question is basically on testing,  if we are going to have in-season or if we are going to have out of season, and so you didn’t really _we don’t know that yet, right?

MARK MILES: “Well, we’ve got a pretty good handle in my office, but we’re not ready to kind of put that out. We’ve got a little more, I think, dialogue to have with the teams before we make it all official. I think there will be fewer tests altogether, and the mix of them pre and during will change some. But the specifics will come out before long.”

Q: Do you think that being on NBC Sports, being with NASCAR half the season this year, television ratings obviously are up, but do you feel that helped it?

MARK MILES: “I feel it’s a contributing factor. It’s really helpful in the second half of the season that the same broadcasters programming both NASCAR and IndyCar, so it’s in everybody’s interest to maximize the windows for both. I think that’s happened, and you’ve probably seen kind of the add-up of that, the significant reduction in the number of races where there are overlapping telecasts and the number of hours. It’s much, much less than it was even three years ago. I think that helps all race fans.

“And ABC has worked with us, as well. You’re always trying to minimize key conflicts in the sports horizon. NBC’s objective, or one of them, is to be the motorsports platform, much as they’ve done in golf, and they have grown as a cable provider, and they’ve grown their audience for motorsports, and certainly they’ve been helpful in the growth of our television audience.”

Q: Spencer, the double-header weekend in Detroit, do you feel that’s an odd-one-out? The bumps and whatnot remain difficult, so how do the drivers continue to feel about that event?

SPENCER PIGOT: “Yeah, Detroit is I think an important market for IndyCar and obviously Chevrolet, so it’s good to be there, but for me personally it was a very difficult track to learn. We only had one practice session before qualifying, which makes it even trickier, but that’s part of the challenge as a race car driver you enjoy. You enjoy going to places that aren’t easy. It’s very rewarding if you’re able to do well at a track like that. Again, the competition that we have in IndyCar is so high that if you’re able to run up-front, it’s very satisfying.

“It’s a very difficult track, and to have two races there is very tough on our bodies. We’re being knocked around the cockpit quite a bit with all the bumps, but it just adds a little unique characteristic to the track, and it’s the same for everybody. For me, I think it’s a good event and provides some great racing. It seems like every year we have a bit of a crazy race in at least one of them, and it’s just a joy to watch, I think.”

Q: Mr. Miles, they’re kind of having street circuits disappear in the Pirelli World Challenge one by one over the years it seems; do they remain important in INDYCAR?

MARK MILES: “Yeah, absolutely. They’re complicated and they’re hard to sustain, but I would say there is at least as much interest in communities that are not on the calendar now that want to be considered for street races as any other of our formats. You know, every city can imagine having their city shown-off like St. Petersburg, Florida, or Long Beach, California. So there’s real interest for that format. I don’t see it declining. It’s obviously got its degree of difficulty because it does impact on the logistics for a city for a couple days.

“But I would just point to the viability of the format by looking at St. Petersburg where I think we’re 12 or more years now, and it seems like every single year rain or shine it gets better and you can just feel that it’s more part of the fabric of that community, as they look forward to it in the spring every year. And then you can look at Long Beach 40-plus years, where it’s just the epitome of what IndyCar wants to be and is, in some of its best iterations.

“Long Beach has come a long way in the time that IndyCar has been there, and I think we’ve had at least a small role in the development of that place and its identity and individuality around the world.”

Q. Mark, is it fair to say Stephen Starks (INDYCAR Vice President, Promoter Relations) is the unsung hero of this schedule putting-together process?

MARK MILES: “Stephen has brought great, fresh thinking about all this. You know, together we can focus on the few things we want to do better, and timeliness was part of it, the things we’ve been talking about, so he does deserve huge props for driving this process inside IndyCar, being a great resource to those who wanted to be considered to join the series and extending the agreements for those who have been on and now will be on with certainty longer. He spent a little bit of time with us and our legal department, so he understands that side of the business, and now he’s really gone to town, and I think the future is bright not just in terms of the schedule-making process. But our ambition is to add more value to the promoters that we have.

“When I look at other leagues, the NBA has a great team-services group, for example, and they’re able to share best practices in a serious way that adds to the value the league provides to their franchises. When one of them figures out something that helps them promote ticket sales and get ticket sales in earlier, they all know about it. I think we can, under Stephen’s leadership, add that kind of value to our promoters, as well.”

2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Schedule*
March 12 _ Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.    
April 9 _ Streets of Long Beach, Calif.  
April 23 _ Barber Motorsports Park, Birmingham, Ala.
April 29 _ Phoenix International Raceway, Avon, Ariz.   
May 13 _ Grand Prix of Indianapolis
May 28 _ Indianapolis 500-Mile Race
June 3 _ Raceway at Belle Isle Park, Detroit 
June 4 _ Raceway at Belle Isle Park, Detroit  
June 10 _ Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth  
June 25 _ Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wis.  
July 9 _ Iowa Speedway, Newton, Iowa
July 16 _ Streets of Toronto, Ontario, Canada  
July 30 _ Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lexington, Ohio  
Aug. 20 _ Pocono (Pa.) Raceway
Aug. 26  _ Gateway Motorsports Park, Madison, Ill.  
Sept. 3 _ Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International  
Sept. 17 _ Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway  

*Schedule subject to change.  

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 26 2016
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