This is the first in a series of Q&As with INDYCAR President Jay Frye in which he answers questions from fans and provides perspective and a glimpse into the future for the sanctioning body and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
Moderator: One of the benefits of a Q&A series like this is the ability to directly reach the fans of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. There are a lot of topics to cover, and we look forward to, over time, discussing them all. Let’s begin with talk of a new car.
Jay Frye: If you remember in 2016, we started working on a rolling five-year plan for the series, and the plan is working in many different ways. One priority was increasing the car count, which we’ve done, and new owners are coming to the series. So, that has been successful.
When you think of our goals, the ‘plan’ for the car was to get our identity back. It needed to be an open-wheel car with less downforce and more horsepower while being more difficult to drive – putting more in the hands of the drivers. Bill Pappas (vice president, Competition Race Engineering), Tino Belli (director of Aerodynamic Development) and I traveled to Italy to visit our partner Dallara. Working with Dallara, we had all of their design people in a room, and they were doing hand sketches and drawings on the walls. It was really cool to see the new car come to life. After that, we publicized the sketches and did a survey to see what the fans’ feedback would be. None of it was negative, which we've never had before on a subject. We actually thought the survey was flawed – you can’t have zero negativity, can you? So, we felt we were on the right path.
About a month later, we distributed renderings of the car and some computer-aided designs (CAD) that showed the car in 3D imaging. The response was the same: This car is awesome, and it looks great. Simultaneously, Dallara was doing a lot of behind-the-scenes simulation work with the car that gave us confidence that it would perform as good as it looked. We understand the questions about a new car, but if you look at the current car, there’s only two things that haven’t been modified since 2012: the bell housing and the gearbox, both of which will be updated in 2024. So, in reality, this is not a 2012 car; this car has been updated 100s of times over the past 10 years and will continue to evolve.
The tub has been modified with different safety enhancements. So, if you have an older version of the tub, yes, the components have been added on or “bolted” onto the car, but when the teams purchase new tubs, those enhancements are already incorporated. Essentially, it’s a new car. It's current, it looks great, and it performs really well.
At this year's Indianapolis 500, we saw the fastest pole speed in the 106-year history of the race. We had the fastest front row and the fastest field, overall. Through the course of a couple of weeks at IMS, we also had numerous 100 G impacts, and all of the drivers involved in those incidents were OK. So, the car is fast, and it is safe. The third piece is how it races. The AK18 has shattered many on-track passing records on all different configurations of tracks: street circuits, road courses, short ovals. So, the car is fast, it’s safe, and it races well.
In 2020, the addition of the aeroscreen gave the car a completely different look. I’ve had kids come up to me and talk about it looking cool, like a fighter jet or something Batman would drive. So, that’s good. We are never satisfied, but overall, the AK18 has met or exceeded expectations.
Moderator: Given that, what’s next on the car?
Frye: As I mentioned earlier, the five-year plan that was recently extended through 2028 is our guideline to the future. It's what we've continued to use. It’s a collaboration with all of our partners – the teams, the manufacturers, and suppliers – to determine where we’re going, what we're doing, what's going to happen and what it's going to cost. When we started this in 2016-2017, I don't think anybody had officially ever done anything like this. It was, and will continue to be, an incredible paddock-wide effort. We're quite proud of this platform and how it has been executed.
In 2024, you'll see some differences in the car. With the new engine, there are going to be different components that are added, which will impact the look of the car. It’s going to come out of the box with over 100 more horsepower, and we will have achieved our goal of more horsepower and less downforce.
We are also working hard to reduce the overall weight of the car. Interesting fact – at the start of a race, an INDYCAR SERIES and an F1 car weigh virtually the same. Fuel loads and INDYCAR pitting and F1 not pitting for fuel change the dynamic throughout the course of a race.
The highest-contributing factor to an INDYCAR SERIES car’s weight gain has been safety components. An INDYCAR SERIES car has to withstand incredible impacts with 240+ mph speeds at Indianapolis.
The aeroscreen and driver side-impact device have contributed the most to the weight gain, but we feel the benefits far exceed the negatives.
The new hybrid system will also create hurdles with weight, but with changes to the car and engine, it also offers opportunities to reduce overall weight, and we will continue to work hard on that.
If there's any indication from the engine perspective, Chevrolet and Honda did a test at IMS with the new 2.4-liter engine, and it was flawless. They lined up and ran all day. For INDYCAR, it’s exciting times.
Moderator: That’s good stuff. Let’s talk qualifying on road and street circuits. Within the last few weeks, the red flag has come out in Segment One as the clock has continued to run, putting some teams in a tough position to advance. It has left some fans wondering why don’t we guarantee time in the earlier rounds of “knockout” qualifying like we do in the Firestone Fast Six?
Frye: We have guaranteed time for the Firestone Fast Six, which is good. Why don't we do that in the two earlier rounds? There are a couple of different reasons. One, we have to keep the show moving; there are other things going on at the track after us. Yes, we are the headliner, but there’s only so much time in the day, so that’s part of it.
Historically, INDYCAR had guaranteed time, and a lot of teams would sit in pit lane because there wasn't a sense of urgency to go out in the early part of the session. You must have a sense of urgency. If you look at Nashville, which saw Group One not get much time due to red flags, it became a clear reminder to teams: There needs to be a sense of urgency because you never know what's going to happen. It’s OK to have a plan if everything runs smoothly, but sometimes it doesn’t, and you better make sure you go out and complete a “banker” lap to make sure you do transfer to the next round. Teams can do whatever they want, but that was likely a good reminder of what could happen.
Interesting fact: In the 11 years of qualifying in the current format, we have only had 10 occasions where we had multiple red flags in a session. So, it doesn't happen that often. Yes, it happened in Nashville, and we don't like it because we like to keep going and have the fans get a great show. But we have a procedure for a reason. They need to have a sense of urgency moving forward.
Moderator: Finally, it’s the time of the year when fans wonder about the next year’s schedule. There is a lot of talk about historical venues and other venues where fans would like to see the NTT INDYCAR SERIES race. What can you tell us about that?
Frye: Historical tracks are what helped build the sport, and you always want to go back to your roots and take care of the people who have taken care of you. At times, we’ve been able to do that. We’ve gone back to Road America. We’ve gone back to Portland, Laguna Seca and World Wide Technology Raceway. We went back to Phoenix.
We did a test at Richmond a couple years ago, so who knows what could happen there down the road. But we take great pride in bringing a lot of these historical venues back, and we’ve had success in doing so.
Additionally, we strive for date and venue equity. When you look at next year's schedule, you’ll see that it looks a lot like this year, which is what we've worked hard to achieve.
Obviously, there are important additions, like Nashville, which just had its second event. Nashville has been a spectacular event in a vibrant city. Think about it: We race over a bridge, and it’s magnificent. It’s unique. There’s ambience to racing around an NFL football stadium with an iconic downtown backdrop.
We made some enhancements to the track this year. There’s no question it helped with the overall product, and we'll look at tweaks again for next year. New events are important to the overall diversity of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
We also have Toronto, the fourth-largest market in North America, and Long Beach, which is a part of the second-largest market in the United States. St. Petersburg is a magnificent coastal city, which serves as an ideal opener for the season. Critical ovals like Texas, World Wide Technology Raceway and Iowa, which received massive support from Hy-Vee this year, are important in the schedule’s balance. We ran the 106th Indianapolis 500, the world’s largest single-day sporting event. And our visits to Barber Motorsports Park, Road America and Mid-Ohio are picturesque showcases for INDYCAR racing.
All of these venues have done a lot of great things to help the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and, when appropriate, we’ll be looking to add a few more “Nashvilles” for the overall diversity of the schedule.
It also goes without saying, with Portland and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, we also have two renowned venues to wrap up the season.