Penske Entertainment Corp. President and CEO Mark Miles and INDYCAR President Jay Frye (pictured above with Scott Dixon after his 2018 NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship) recently met with the media to discuss the upcoming 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, which starts Sunday, April 18 with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst at Barber Motorsports Park.
Here are pieces of that conversation:
Question: Mark, as we look forward to 2021, new season, new start, pandemic maybe looks a little different than it did a year ago. What excites you about the start of the season?
Mark Miles: Well, the start itself is exciting. Everybody is ready to go. When I think about 2021, I get particularly excited about the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule.
If I just walk through that for a second, can't wait to be in Alabama at Barber this weekend, but we go from there in consecutive weekends, as everybody knows, to St. Pete. That's going to be really terrific to be back there, to the Texas Motor Speedway.
We have a weekend off, and then we're at May. We know what May brings. We've got the two races and the time trials in between, and all the exciting practice, Fast Friday, Carb Day, all the exciting things in between. And then Belle Isle with a week in between.
Six of our first eight races in a compact schedule by our historical standards are on network, plus at least one of the qualifying sessions will be on network here in Indianapolis.
I think it's a really, really potent start that we'll get our fans refocused on the INDYCAR SERIES, and then we have kind of the traditional summer, which we're excited about, except that we're adding Nashville.
I hear every day from fans who want to know how they get their tickets for Nashville. The anticipation there is fantastic. We think it's going to be a great event, a terrific addition to the series.
And then we finish really strong. I don't mean to leave any events out at all, but we finish with the oval at the World Wide Technology Raceway, and then three consecutive weekends on the West Coast, from Portland to Monterey to Long Beach, and two of those three on network, totaling nine races on network, more than we've had in the history that I know about.
And so we're really excited. I just think it's going to be a terrific schedule. We have some events that won't be at full capacity, for sure, but I think they're going to happen, and I think the racing will be great, and we're putting together with the schedule a platform that will really be powerful for fans.
Q: And speaking of the racing, when it comes to competition on the track, INDYCAR president Jay Frye, this is a fascinating season. Is it possible to have too many story lines heading into a new season like this?
Jay Frye: Well, it's really hard to know where to start with the rookie class, a seven-time champion, a three-time champion, and a 10-year F1 veteran; you know, 45, 35 and 25 basically raw numbers.
To me this is kind of a generational thing. This might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing that we see something like this. We're really excited. The good thing about these three is they're great people on and off the track. They've taken this very seriously. It's going to be amazing to watch their progress over the course of the year. Really excited to have them.
We've got three Hall of Famers coming back joining us in one way or another this year with Tony (Kanaan), Helio (Castroneves) and Juan (Montoya), so that's pretty cool. We've worked very hard with the speedway program. We had a test last fall. We did a couple tests this year already. We're really excited about what the speedway program is going to look like in 2021.
Speaking of the speedway, our weekly car count is remaining very strong, and it's going up, which obviously bodes well for the car count for the “500,” which I think there's going to be some really exciting news to come out of that here shortly. Car count is going to be up.
Q: Jay, we've heard quite a lot about the aerodynamic changes for the superspeedways with Indianapolis and I think Texas, as well. Just wondered if you wouldn't mind kind of going through those changes and what you've decided to stick with for the season and kind of the interpretation of how those changes have gone over the past few tests.
Frye: Well, thank you. So this has kind of been an 18-month process, right. If you think about it, in 2018 when we came out with the new AK-18 aero kit there was things we did with the floor that we wanted to expand on and do more, and part of it was closing the floor up, so created more downforce to the bottom of the car, that type of thing.
So, it took a while to get it to where we needed it to be, and we feel really good about where it's at. Again, over the last 18 months with simulation and CFD and that type of thing, and now we've had four track tests with the car. so far, so good.
It looks like, again, we think it's a very good product. We wanted to make it even better, so we've expanded on that. And from everything we've seen, especially there was 32 cars at the Open test here at IMS last Friday, ran almost 4,200 laps, and the car looked very racy.
We almost wanted to start the race that day. It just looked -- everything looked right. It felt right. So we're excited about Texas and the “500”.
Q: Will it be the same setup for Texas and for Indy, or will it be slightly different between the two?
Frye: They're a little bit different. What we've done is created options for the teams. So, the hole in the floor being closed up some is standard for both, but then there are other options that you have at Texas versus IMS.
We wanted to put it more into the teams' and the drivers' hands, so there are options for both events.
Q: Jay, a couple of weeks ago back in March you guys tested the push-to-pass on the oval. Is there a potential or possibility that may be implemented this season?
Frye: No. The biggest part of the test was to get a better understanding of what 2023 is going to look like. If you look at it with the new engine and the hybrid system, push-to-pass as we know it will go away.
The current push-to-pass system was something that we could use to simulate what the hybrid system could possibly look like in 2023. It was great learning.
We had -- I remember a couple years ago we tried it at Pocono, we tried it at Phoenix, we tried it at Gateway, where we tested it, that type of thing. So, this was just part of that. Part of the problem we had at those three venues we learned from and we fixed. So, that was good.
But again, at the end of the day it was an interesting test. It probably created more questions than answers, but we need those questions right now going into 2023 so we can fine-tune that piece to make sure it's really good right out of the box.
Q: For Jay and Mark, how excited are you guys for the introduction of Romain, Scott McLaughlin, and Jimmie to the sport, but also in terms of the reach for fans when we go to Nashville later in the year?
Frye: We're very excited. Again, Jimmie, Scott, Romain are all great race car drivers, all great people. They've all integrated themselves into the sport very quickly. They're very well liked already.
They're just part of us and what we do and who we are. We're really excited to see them perform, really excited to see them progress. It's going to be a process or there will be great progress throughout the course of the season. Yeah, we're excited to see how that all plays out.
Miles: Yeah, I do think part of your question is spot-on. They bring big followings with them, and we're hearing from France, we're hearing from New Zealand, Australia, obviously the NASCAR Nation, those fans.
We might all want to be able to guess what's going to happen, but the fact is we don't know what's going to happen. They have this big following that comes with them for our fan base and these new eyeballs that will be watching. It's just going to be exciting to see what happens. It's what sport is all about.
In addition to the things that Jay said about how they're really good people, we've enjoyed getting to know each of them. But man, the stories that will follow from this. There will be ups and downs, but a lot of people will be watching.
Q: We're seeing a lot of new faces coming from different avenues into the sport. What does that say right now about the health and competition level of the series?
Frye: I think we mentioned earlier there's lots of things that are involved in it. We've got great promotional partners. We've got great race teams. We've got great drivers. The depth of the field is spectacular. There's lots of things that are adding up to a very successful launch to the 2021 season, and we couldn't be more excited to get started.