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The Battle Of Texas Features Promoters

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 6 2018

 

Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage and COTA’s Bobby Epstein will be doing battle next year. (File photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Addition of Circuit of The Americas to the 2019 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule figures to test the “Everything’s Bigger in Texas” cliché in terms of promoting and supporting open-wheel racing in the Lone Star State.

Specifically, can Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage and Bobby Epstein, founder/chairman of COTA, park their egos to work together and with sanctioning body INDYCAR for the betterment of all stakeholders?

“I have no doubt that we’ll look at ways we can do stuff together and grow it,” Epstein said during a national teleconference with Mark Miles, president/CEO of Hulman & Co., which owns INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “It’s in both of our interests. They’re very different products. The oval race and the road-race, I think, are each unique. I hope that together it just builds more interest in the sport.”

COTA’s 3.427-mile/20-turn natural-terrain layout in Austin will play host to its debut INDYCAR race on Sunday, March 24.The series will return to TMS’ 1.5-mile oval in Fort Worth for “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race” on Saturday, June 8. TMS’ race weekend will mark the 23rd consecutive year the IndyCar Series has competed in Cowtown, dating to the venue’s inaugural season under Tony George’s Indy Racing League banner in 1997.

The two Texas events and venues are separated by 76 days and a 220-mile/three-hour drive on the sometimes-parking lot that is Interstate 35.

I think those two events are far enough apart, if you’re an INDYCAR fan, you’re probably excited about it,” Epstein said. “That would be the way I’d look at it. It’s a real positive in trying to build the sport. INDYCAR comes to my area twice, that’s twice as good.”

Gossage is vacationing in Europe and was unavailable for comment following official release of the 17-race schedule on Tuesday. Two weeks ago, Miles and Gossage announced a four-year contract extension between INDYCAR and Texas Motor Speedway. The deal was reached following a compromise in which TMS surrendered its long-standing regional exclusivity rights for what Gossage described as a “much, much, much better” sanctioning fee.

That concession allowed INDYCAR to immediately expand its Texas presence, while also continuing to reportedly explore the San Antonio, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Okla., markets for possible street-course events.

The only purpose-built grand prix facility in the United States, COTA is the successful home to the U.S. Grand Prix weekend in October as part of the FIA Formula One World Championship schedule. During an interview about the contract extension with RacinToday.com, Gossage acknowledged that COTA has been sanctioned by the Federation Internationale de l’ Automobile (FIA) in Paris, France. As such, COTA is a world-class facility. But Gossage never mentioned “Circuit of The Americas” or “COTA” by name in any instance, instead referring to it as “Austin” each time.

That snub reverts to 2014, when TMS’ 10th annual NASCAR fall weekend and Formula One’s third visit to COTA were booked by the FIA on the same early November dates, creating a conflict for crossover fans.  Gossage _ who attended the 2013 Formula One race at COTA _ chided the FIA and track management for the conflict.

“With 52 weekends in a year, there’s no point in running on the same day,” Gossage said then. COTA’s race was moved into October in 2015.

Gossage and Epstein reportedly now are on cordial speaking terms. Meanwhile, speculation is circulating among the Media Relations staff at TMS about possible implementation of a cross-promotion of the two Texas Indy car races centering around a “Silver Boot”-style competition. The winner of both races could receive a monetary bonus and unique trophy, mirroring an existing promotion between the Arlington-based Texas Rangers and Houston Astros in the American League West Division.

Miles pointed to INDYCAR’s Midwest market as one where the all-for-one promotional concept can work.

“I’m not suggesting that all the markets are identical,” Miles said. “But if you look at the Midwest, and you say Indianapolis, Detroit, Mid-Ohio and a little bit later Gateway in St. Louis, they feed on each other. They’re not precisely the same distances, but we have no doubt, and we have good data, that fans want to take in as many as they can of those events. If we go to Gateway, I feel like I’m at the 500. I see more (Indianapolis) Colts jerseys than Indianapolis Motor Speedway fans there. I see a lot of St. Louis people here. We see people from Detroit at Mid-Ohio. It’s a similar sort of geographic area, and I have no doubt that they build on each other.

We’ll see, but it might also be that for INDYCAR fans in the area to see both an oval and a road-course, the different formats, could be particularly interesting.”

Recall that INDYCAR previously conducted a street race in the Houston market that failed, as did previous attempts under the Championship Auto Racing Teams banner.

They are very distinct markets _ San Antonio, Houston _ you have 22-million people within a three-and- a-half-hour drive of Austin,” Epstein said.”I think that’s a pretty big sampling. You put that against a lot of the other areas, if you take that Midwest circle that Mark is referring to, there should be more than enough people to support two events. It should make race fans all that much more excited to have two events in the same state.”

Here is another factor. COTA’s March 24 IndyCar Series race will be run one week before NASCAR’s inaugural spring tripleheader weekend at TMS. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity Series and rebranded Gander Outdoor Truck Series will compete at TMS from March 29-31.

Rather than force fans to choose between the two events, Gossage, Epstein and their staffs might be inclined to market the back-to-back weekends as the ultimate early-season crossover experience as winter turns to spring.

Well, first of all, it’s the week before the first NASCAR event at TMS,” Miles said. “Look, I’d just say this _ and what Bobby thinks is more important than what I think in a way because he’s now invested in INDYCAR_ he’s a promoter that wouldn’t have signed up if he didn’t think he could make it all work.

We believe to a point more is better. I said ‘to a point’ because I’m sure there are some practical market-driven limits. But we think having COTA, being at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin (and) Texas Motor Speedway is great. It’s an important state, important economies, both great markets for us to be in. I think, if anything, they can develop INDYCAR racing and the fan base between them. I think they’re complementary.

There’s other racing going on. We could go through probably and look track-by-track at where there’s some NASCAR, I think they’re different products. We think this will all work very well for us in that early part of the season.”

Epstein said he did not view the scheduling proximity as a negative. I think there’s racing fans that follow both series,” Epstein said. “They can make a Texas two-step out of it, take a great vacation, go to both events I would hope.

I think we’ve learned that putting the COTA race on the same weekend at TMS upsets the apple cart a little bit, so I’m hoping that a week apart will be just fine. I do think the overlap of fans will hopefully be minimal, and they both can be great events and not cannibalize each other. I don’t really see that to be an issue.”

An edited transcript of the Miles/Epstein teleconference follows:

MODERATOR: Obviously, Mark, it’s a very exciting day for INDYCAR with announcement of the 2019 schedule. What are your initial thoughts?

MARK MILES: “Well, the first one is I’m glad Bobby is on the call. It portends well for part of the news today. It’s been a pleasure working with him to get to this point.

“One of my thoughts is here we are, we’re not yet to Sonoma and the finale for ’18, and we have a schedule out. It’s great that the championship is coming down to the wire with Scott ‘The Phoenix’ Dixon coming back and being in the lead for the last race.

We’re really delighted with the schedule in so many ways. At the top level, obviously it starts again for the ninth consecutive year with St. Petersburg, March 10th, and ends on the West Coast about the same day with Laguna Seca.

We are delighted to have two new events. I mentioned Laguna Seca and I mentioned COTA. COTA will be in the spring, March 24th. We think that’s a great time there. Helps us get more momentum earlier. There’s so much to say about Circuit of The Americas and Bobby and his team. We could not be more delighted. That’s a new feature in the calendar.

We’re stoked about Laguna Seca. Hard to improve on Sonoma as a destination event, but if it could be done, Monterey and Laguna Seca helps us do that. The feedback from all of our stakeholders, sponsors, media, broadcasters and the teams is really favorable. People want to be in Monterey. They love that track.

We’re glad that this schedule allows us to get back to three Saturday night ovals, which we think is a great element, kind of part of what we are and have been. We can’t wait for the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 race. It was building before the 100th and it’s continuing to build, and it will continue and stretch the standards.

There’s good balance between the types of events with seven road courses, five ovals, five street races. We shouldn’t forget that next year will be our first year where NBC, NBCSN, will have all of it. I know from the enormous amount of work that’s already been going into this in planning, they’re committed, focused, they’re creative and expect good things from the way they cover us from St. Pete through Laguna Seca.”

MODERATOR: Bobby, how much excitement is there around INDYCAR racing coming to Circuit of The Americas?

BOBBY EPSTEIN: “I think the response has been overwhelming. It’s been building for years. We’ve heard from the fans the very first year that it’s something that they want to see. It’s been nice that over time the drivers have, I guess, heard from others who have participated in racing at the track and heard good things about it. They’ve actually been really supportive in asking for this.

Locally the excitement is tremendous. I think we’ve gotten more messages today of congratulations and excitement than we ever have for anything we’ve done. I’m excited. I think it is going to translate to a great event.”

MODERATOR: There also has been a tremendous outpouring of support on social media today from drivers and fans alike. Does that have you more revved-up for next season?

BOBBY EPSTEIN: “Absolutely. For me personally, all my family grew up in Indianapolis. I spent my summers there. I remember having the souvenir glasses as a kid with Foyt and Unser’s name, Mario, some of the greats. So for me personally, this is a great thing to have happen. Got such a long, great history and tradition.

I tell you, the effort that Mark and all of his staff put in to putting a great product together, giving the fans a great show, wanting the teams to have a great experience, is really impressive. They really listen to the fans and drivers and sponsors and they make I think perhaps an underappreciated, under-recognized effort to put together and deliver a season of exciting racing and great venue experiences. They really wanted this to happen, and they really put together a great product. They work together as a team really well. It’s been a pleasure for us.”

QUESTION: Mr. Miles, by shifting the schedule around, you have a pretty action-packed March and an action-packed early part of April. But then there’s a month gap between the Long Beach Grand Prix and the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Do you view that as a problem? Will that be time for open tests at the Speedway, ROP, things of that nature?

MARK MILES: “First, Easter is in that open period, as you called it. We almost look at it as a week that is not available to us. But nevertheless, that observation is fair.

Yeah, we’re looking at whether or not there’s an open test at IMS on the oval in that period. I think that’s a real possibility. I guess in a perfect world there might be another race in there, but we think it will work, especially if we end up deciding to get to Indianapolis for a test.”

QUESTION: Mark, how many years is this agreement with Circuit of The Americas? One-year deal or multi-year deal?

MARK MILES: “Definitely a multi-year deal. We hope to be there for a very long time.”

QUESTION: Bobby, I don’t think anybody believed you could have drawn the number of Formula 1 fans that you have to your circuit in Texas. I don’t think Texas was ever viewed as an F1 mecca. Was having two big concerts every year part of helping to draw those fans? If so, is something like that planned for the INDYCAR race?

BOBBY EPSTEIN: “First, when you say no one thought we could draw that many people, we would like to have drawn more. We thought we’d do better than we’ve done. Both sides.

But I think what we try to do, whether it’s the music acts or anyone else, for anyone who has been to one of the events at COTA is we’ve really tried to design the circuit around just not the driver but the fan, trying to give a weekend of entertainment. I think whether that’s a lot of stages, a lot of great Austin music along with some big headliners, a lot of other engaging fan activities and activations, then you combine that with unparalleled views of a road-course where you can from one seat see eight to 10 turns. I think all that adds to bringing the crowd in.

“One thing that 100,000 people allows you to do is bring in the bigger headliner. That didn’t really happen for the first several years of F1. As we see the business build, we see the crowds, we’ll be better able to determine that.”

QUESTION: Mark, you mentioned in the release that consistency is a key theme. That being said, do you see for 2020 the schedule expanding beyond 17 races?

MARK MILES: “That’s not our objective. It would have to be pretty compelling for us to expand the total number.

As to consistency, it’s not just whether it’s 16 or 17 races, it’s all in the same ballpark, although we do feel that 17 is a good number for us now. That comment is more about the number of events that you can go through and know have been tent poles or with us for a very long time, including the Texas Motor Speedway. I mentioned this is their ninth year to start the series calendar in St. Petersburg, Long Beach, it goes on. We’re really proud of those long-term relationships. Those events are getting better, growing. That’s more what we mean.

I think consistency is also some level of balance between the different formats of our racing. So it isn’t going to be the same. I think it’s really exciting there’s a couple new venues added for next year, but it’s familiar to our fans. I think people will be delighted by the changes that are part of this and the things that are familiar.”

QUESTION: Mark, when you originally announced Laguna Seca, the drivers were absolutely unanimous in their excitement to go back there. Did you talk to some of the drivers about their thoughts about going to COTA? How excited are they to go, as well?

MARK MILES: “Off the charts, whether it’s drivers who want to be there on that great stage, in that great market, a world-class track, or the team owners who want to bring their sponsors, everybody is thrilled about it. Haven’t heard a peep out of anything except enthusiastic support.”

QUESTION: There’s still a lot of talk out there that Fernando Alonso may be in the IndyCar Series next year. Mark, how big would that be for INDYCAR if that were to happen? Bobby, how important will that be to your ticket sales?

BOBBY EPSTEIN: “I’m glad you asked the question. I was going to ask Mark also, is Fernando going to be in the series (laughter)?”

MARK MILES: “I don’t have any new news other than the calendar. I know it’s something that all the interested parties are working together on. I’m hopeful that he’ll be able to join the series fulltime next year.

There isn’t a deadline that I know of that’s concrete. I guess people know that he’s going to be in an Indy car getting comfortable with it on a road course at Barber. So we sure hope it happens. We’re trying to be helpful to that. If it happens, I think it will be another affirming step for INDYCAR in its trajectory and growth. We’re hearing that right now in terms of additional interested parties, prospective international broadcasters. It might be bigger news than it might be in the States, his joining INDYCAR.

There are prospects for one or more Mexican drivers in the series next year. Frankly, in Texas, that could have even more impact, and other places like Long Beach. We got a lot of Mexican-Americans, Hispanics in this country. I think to the extent any of that happens, it’s all good news.”

BOBBY EPSTEIN: “I think from our standpoint, having Alonso would be terrific. I think it speaks to the excitement the drivers have towards being a part of the IndyCar Series, the excitement of the racing, just their desire. He’s very experienced in his career and where he decides, ‘What I’d like to do at this point is race in INDYCAR because it’s going to be something I really want to do,’ I think it speaks to the quality of the show and of the competition.

“A little known fact is that Alexander Rossi (of Andretti Autosport) was actually the first driver of any sort to drive on COTA. We had nine of the turns finished. We now have 20 turns. We had nine of the turns finished, and he came out very early in his career and just checked it out, took a car around. I think he and Mario Andretti were the first guys to come and visit COTA and check out the track. That would be great.”

QUESTION: Bobby, you talked about how the drivers in Indy are looking forward to coming to this iconic circuit. There’s talk about doing a shortened version. Do you feel that’s irrelevant, the INDYCAR fans and drivers, including Alonso, will want to do the full Formula 1 circuit to show off the 3.427-miles?

BOBBY EPSTEIN: “There’s no plans to do a shortened course. I think part of the beauty of what the guys want to drive is I think we have a winning formula in the track as it is. I don’t think it needs any changes. We’ve always tinkered with other ideas in terms of what changes could we make that would make the racing even more exciting.

There’s one feature we’ve looked at that would allow an additional I think great passing opportunity kind of in the Turn 6-7 area. It wouldn’t be hard to do. I don’t know if we’ll do it. If we do anything, it will be minor.”

QUESTION: Mark, you mentioned a multi-year deal. Reporting here in Austin that it’s a five-year deal. Is your hope it would be a long-term thing?

MARK MILES: “That report is erroneous. As I said, it’s multi-year, and I hope we’re there for a very long time. You’ve heard us say even on this call that we value successful relationships which give our fans kind of a habitual sense of what our circuit looks like, what our championship point race looks like. We love the Austin market. I think it’s going to love INDYCAR. Circuit of The Americas and Bobby and his team I think are compelling ingredients to long-term success, so I hope that INDYCAR is there for many, many years to come.”

BOBBY EPSTEIN: “We do want to do some things to make this race a little bit unique and special as we think the experience of driving is going to be. One of the things we’re going to offer is we’re looking at doing a special nice cash bonus. If a guy qualifies on the pole and then wins the race on Sunday, if you have the pole-sitter who qualifies first also wins the race, we’re going to have a special probably $100,000 bonus.”

MARK MILES: “If you do that, Will Power (of Team Penske) will be really grateful.”

BOBBY EPSTEIN: “We’re going to do some things to make it interesting and fun. If we can make this the second-richest purse in INDYCAR to the Indy 500, that’s something we’re looking at doing. It all of course goes to the fans. I think the response will allow us to do some unique things, some things that distinguish it from other events.”

QUESTION: Mr. Miles, talking about the Mexican/Hispanic fan base. A Mexican-American Indy Lights champion (Partricio O’Ward) will be entering the IndyCar Series next year. Does this move with COTA negate the further opportunities that were talked about previously, going to Mexico for a race?

MARK MILES: “No, it doesn’t. We think it has momentum. The right circumstances can be put together in Mexico, which is a lot of needles to thread. But if that’s possible, we remain interested in the possibility of developing a race and being in Mexico.”

QUESTION: Mark, a lot of owners have mentioned this, about consistency and placement on the schedule. Aside from the two new tracks, there is not much movement in terms of the calendar. Can you expand on that a little bit?

MARK MILES: “One of the toughest things for sanctioning bodies to do…folks who run the leagues in any sport, is to make the schedule. There’s so many different considerations. It starts with the league’s desire to have the strongest possible events, where events are compelling and dominant in the market where you compete, and capable of making national news and achieving television, media ratings.

You quickly get all the considerations from the promoter, what works most years in a place might not work in a given year because they host a major event they get from time to time, or there’s another local event to come in that folks have to sort out. You have to marry those considerations with the optimal television schedule, the concerns of your broadcasters, all that. We will always be looking on the margins to improve the reach and strength of our series through its schedule while taking care of all those other considerations at the same time.

It’s kind of an alchemy, it takes a lot of communication. You almost never can deal with a track on a bilateral basis between just you and them. If they need to make a change, it has a domino effect on others.

Our Stephen Starks is on-point for us to do that. I think he’s doing a great job. I think we’re getting better at it. You know our philosophy _ we’re not looking to grow the number at this point. As our economics improve that would be great, but for now I think this is about the right race (number), we think it’s about the right length, although we’re still of a view that if we could find one or two really strong international races that add value for the series and the competitors in February, that’s something we would look at. That would be an exception to the idea that we’re big enough as we’re sized right now. That would give us a reason to look at growing the number of events.

Generally we don’t want to go too long in September. We’d like to start earlier in February if it was out of the U.S. I want to see more people in seats and more impact in the markets where we race. I think that’s generally happening and we’ll continue to look for ways to improve on that.”

QUESTION: Mark, your TV schedule is going to be announced soon. Is there a good chance COTA might get an NBC network slot?

MARK MILES: “We expect to announce the full broadcast schedule in the next couple weeks or so. One of the attributes of the new relationship with NBC is there will be three additional events on NBC broadcast or free to air. Saying that, I’m not going to announce the schedule today. But I don’t think it looks like it will be NBC for COTA, at least in Year One. It’s more likely to be NBCSN.

They’re going to do a great job with all the events. To finally have the opportunity to promote from race-to-race-to-race across one media conglomerate platform we think will help not just because of the additional free to air coverage but also because of the continuity and ability to promote.”

The 2019 IndyCar Series schedule, listed by date and venue:

March 10 _ Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.
March 24 _ Circuit of The Americas, Austin, Texas
April 7 _ Barber Motorsports Park, Birmingham, Ala.
April 14 _Streets of Long Beach, Calif.
May 11_ INDYCAR Grand Prix, Indianapolis Motor Speedway road-course
May 26 _ 103rd Indianapolis 500, Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval 
June 1 _Streets of Detroit, Race 1, Detroit, Mich.
June 2 _ Streets of Detroit, Race 2, Detroit, Mich.
June 8 _ Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, Texas*
June 23 _ Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wis.
July 14 _ Streets of Toronto, Canada
July 20 _ Iowa Speedway, Newton, Iowa*
July 28 _ Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lexington, Ohio
Aug. 18 _ Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, Pa.
Aug. 24 _ Gateway Motorsports Park, Madison, Ill.*
Sept. 1 _ Portland International Raceway, Portland, Ore.
Sept. 22 _ WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Monterey, Calif.

Note _ *Denotes night race
(Schedule subject to change)  

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 6 2018
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