They parked their proverbial cars and took a breath to celebrate the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season for one night.
But don’t think for one second, during last week’s Victory Lap Celebration at Union 50 in downtown Indianapolis, that the wheels weren’t already turning for not just the teams but those entrusted with ensuring the future success of the series.
“We’ve created a plan that takes us through 2026, so we’re thinking pretty far ahead,” said Jay Frye, INDYCAR president of competition and operations.
“Nobody in here stops ever. This is a 24-7 livelihood, it’s what we all do. You don’t ever stop. I think we feel good. We came up with a plan for the car and engine program and we’re kind of executing that plan. We’ve got some meetings coming up with team managers. About 20 percent of the meeting is about next year. The other 80 percent is (focused on) 2020. This group is phenomenal. Everybody in this room was part of that plan and how we executed it. We’ve got a lot of work to do yet. I think we’re pointed in the right direction.”
This year’s part of the plan involved introducing redesigned cars with universal aero kits. But there are so many other thoughts on the minds of Frye and Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company, which owns INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Tonight’s a night to take a couple minutes and reflect on what I think was an outstanding year that is a continuation of growth over the last five or six years,” Miles said. “We should all be pleased about that.
“I remember going to my first drivers meeting with this responsibility, really not having a clue with what I was going to hear, and I only knew a few of them.”
The meeting was at Barber Motorsports Park in 2013, shortly after Miles assumed the position.
“I was going to introduce myself and give them some of my thoughts about the sport and a little bit about why they should trust me to see what I could do,” Miles said. “The guys were great about that. I think they saw some relevance to my other sport background (which included the ATP, the governing body for men’s professional tennis, and leading the Super Bowl XLVI planning in Indianapolis).
“But to the driver, the focus was, ‘Fix the television. We’ve got to grow our television audience.’ Of course, my reaction was, ‘There’s no silver bullet, there’s a lot of things we’ve got to do. But you’re right, it is an optimal.’
“A big development we think in 2018 was getting it right and making really improved arrangements for 2019 and beyond with NBC. We’ve been growing. Average TV audience and average rating is up 30 percent since 2013. Social media is up much, much more.”
INDYCAR announced in March a multiyear media rights package with NBC Sports Group. Miles returned the day before the Victory Lap Celebration from a lengthy trip overseas to discuss TV in the international market.
“I went from (the season-ending race at) Sonoma to Europe, in London and Milan, working on television arrangements for international TV in the future,” he said. “There’s a lot more of that to be done. We’re working hard on a number of different kinds of sponsorships and I still believe in total, our sponsorship portfolio will be stronger for next year than it has been this year.
“We also spoke to the CEOs of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Alpha, Dallara. I was in a different hotel room every night but one. When you do a trip like that, you never really take anything out of your suitcase.”
Miles expressed his gratitude to Verizon, which is exiting as the series title sponsor after five years but remaining as a sponsor for Team Penske.
“They added stability and then investment, growth and promotion in so many ways,” he said. “They were a key ingredient to the success in these years. We’re going to miss them in that role, but they’re not going away, and we’re glad about that.
“There’s lots to be happy about. Attendance at most of the events continues to get stronger. That’s important to all of us. The addition of new team owners and drivers, which we expect to see continue next year, is really a great sign of growth. There’s a lot of positive things to point to.”
As for a new title sponsor, stay tuned.
“There’s no new news on that,” he said. “It’s a work in progress.”
The plan continues. He recalls with a smile how teams complained for a few years about the car not handling right. Frye and INDYCAR’s engineering department came up with today’s car, which was received with overwhelming support in the paddock and delivered more exciting racing at most venues.
But their work is never done.
"For us, improving is never-ending,” Miles said. “There’s no reason to take a point in time and say, ‘We did well.’ There’s no such thing as being satisfied. I don’t know how you could think that way. If you did, you ought to get out.”
He mentioned an old quote attributed to Will Rogers: “Even if you’re on the right track, you’re gonna get run over if you just sit there.”
The 2019 IndyCar Series features 17 races, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26. The season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10.