IndyCar CEO Mark Miles: Future to see third constructor, digital offering

IndyCar has been in the news recently with an exciting new street race for 2021 announced in Nashville. Under the ownership of American racing legend Roger Penske, both the series and the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway have the foundations of a strong future ahead. So what does that future look like and what are the threats, beyond the current pandemic?

In the latest of our #ThinkingForward interviews, Indycar CEO Mark Miles talks about the push to get a third manufacturer into the series and how the sport will shape its digital future beyond linear television among other topics. [For the full interview check out the video]

Mark Miles

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Mark, to start with can you sum up the appeal, the USP of IndyCar to audiences?

IndyCar racing is fast. We love the diversity; we race on ovals and super speedways as well as short ovals and we race on permanent road courses and we race on temporary street circuits. And I think that diversity is really interesting and a great draw for our fans. We’re very competitive;  literally a driver can start at the back of the grid and win the race and it happens.Any number of drivers can compete in the championship and be serious contenders. Little teams can compete with big teams. During a race it’s wheel to wheel, there’s passing and I just think that isn’t always something we can expect today in racing and so they’re great attributes of IndyCar racing. The other thing is our drivers. We’ve got the same sort of mix from really outstanding young young drivers, and established veterans and they go wheel to wheel and about half the drivers are from outside the US. I think we’ve got something for everybody who has any interest in motorsport.

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet, Patricio O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

This strand is called #ThinkingForward. And when we think forward about IndyCar we’re in the early stages of the ownership by Penske who really understands the US motorsport scene having been involved in for such a long time. I wonder, what is the vision for shaping the sport for the future?

For now, we’re still very focused, frankly, on North America. We’ve had opportunities to consider racing abroad. For now, the answer to those inquiries is ‘No; we’re going to focus on the US’. So let’s drill down and really accomplish everything we can in the US market. With all due respect to Formula 1, I think in the States were the dominant open wheel series and what more can we do with that? So that’s going to mean in the short term, we’re not looking to see how many races we can have. I believe that the announcement of Nashville portends great things for the series beginning next year. Diversity is important to us. We want to be welcoming and extend the invitation to be part of the series to folks of all backgrounds and not just as fans, but also in terms of our hiring practices, our own procurement and ultimately, the composition of teams and drivers. There’ll be some progress and some tangible evidence of that, hopefully next year. The car will evolve. We’ll also look at the possibility of at least a third OEM (manufacturer). That’s a challenge. But it’s something that Roger Penske is maybe uniquely in the world able to be successful in.

Mark Miles

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

We’ve been hearing from leaders throughout this series about the participation of manufacturers in top level motorsport in the future. This pandemic has been extremely difficult for manufacturers. It’s very clear what the rationale is for manufacturers to be involved in motorsport from both a technology development and a marketing point of view. But do you see that rationale changing in any way and are you concerned about the level of investment for manufacturers going forward as a result of the crisis?

Yeah, well, obviously it’s hard to imagine a tougher time to have that conversation. Happily we’ve been working on it for a while. So there are a number of manufacturers that know our story and have been able to watch our progress. So I guess it’s a bit of a speed bump, COVID. I don’t think the basic premise is going to change. I think it is what you said it’s a development opportunity. And, particularly in the US market, it’s a marketing opportunity. And finally, I think the value proposition for IndyCar is amazing. So if you look at the costs; to be in Formula One or to be in even NASCAR, from my perspective on a sort of ‘CPM basis’, in other words how many eyeballs you get in front of for the cost to be a manufacturer with maybe a third of the teams, I think it’s a great value proposition. And we’ve seen that being understood in our conversations.

Zach Veach, Andretti Autosport Honda

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

The digital piece has been very important for Formula 1 and its growth. Since Liberty Media took over, and particularly in finding new audiences, it actually has a data point that 52% of new fans since Liberty took over are under 35. I wonder how is IndyCar setting its strategy when it comes to finding new and younger audiences?

Well, I have to say, I think Liberty Media and Formula One have done a great job in that regard. They’ve invested and they are showing that it can work and they’re having success. I don’t know that we’re going to invent a new model. We’ll be going down that path generally. We are kind of beholden to linear media in this country for most of our live race exposure.  I think in the next couple of years the whole architecture will change. And particularly with so many subscribers leaving cable, streaming is going to take on a much greater importance. You know, in our primary market the US linear coverage will – for I don’t know how long – deliver the biggest audiences but streaming will have a more and more important role and internationally as you may know, we do believe that’ll be true to some extent in a number of our key markets. But for a whole lot of the world streaming is really our best opportunity and I think you’ll see us doing much more in that regard.

Jay Frye and Mark Miles

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Motor racing started up in the US earlier than it did in other parts of the world coming out of the lockdown, NASCAR first and then IndyCar. What’s the outlook for the rest of 2020? You’re still suffering very high COVID numbers.

We have three more races left, two of them in Indianapolis. For our Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader, the beginning of October here in Indianapolis, there will be fans, they will not approach the capacity of this venue. But nevertheless, it will be more than we’ve had probably in sports in the city at that point. And then the finale will be in St. Petersburg, Florida and we still don’t know to what extent fans will be able to participate.  Psychologically it’s a strange off-putting sort of process and environment. But for the racers it’s racing and they keep themselves safe. Of course, we’d rather have fans. One of the great attributes of IndyCar is how accessible we are. When we do have fans, they’re right there in the garage and paddock area and our drivers are very happy to sign autographs and be quite proximate to fans. So we really do miss that.

Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda leads the field to the green flag

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

Speaking of accessibility, obviously esports has really opened up a lot of motor sports over this over this period. And not only that people can discover the sport for the first time through eSports, particularly younger audiences, but in many cases can actually race against the famous car racers themselves. What are your thoughts on esports this year and in future?

Well, it created the opportunity to put esports out. We had we had six events and five were on linear television in the US and they did pretty well in terms of the audience. I think there’s a future for sure. I expect that it will grow. Frankly it’s an investment for the sport, which one would like to make, but where it is in the pecking order in our growth remains to be seen. We’d like to get to the place where there is an IndyCar title, a great game, a compelling game. And then we can really see what the what the uptake is. But the first thing is the title. That’s a significant hurdle in and of itself. But when we’ve had events and we have had many, not just the ones in this COVID Season but previously, the drivers love it. Our guys really like to like to be out there. They like to compete with the public. And so I think there’s an opportunity there for sure.

Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

You have this exciting new event in Nashville. And you were saying that one of the key attractions of IndyCar is the variety between street courses as Nashville is going to be the road courses and the ovals. How do you determine that balance?

We don’t have a quota. But we think the balance is important to us, it isn’t precise, but it’s been more or less a third, a third, a third. Ovals are never in the middle of a city. Indianapolis is maybe the exception. They’re tougher in some respects. IndyCar fans love oval racing, it’s the fastest and it’s the most hair racing, but to attract fans to go maybe 30 or 60 minutes from a city is increasingly a challenge because there’s so much competition in sports and entertainment. So we have to work really hard on that. Street tracks I love because to me like in Nashville’s case when we put it right in the middle of the city, as we do in St. Petersburg, Florida, in Long Beach, California, in Detroit, and Toronto it takes over the city, for the one event, how it just captivates the entire community. Can’t be missed. That’s the nature of the street race, but they’re hard to do, you have to find the right combination of elements that will accept some disruption and really embrace it. But we love them. And then road courses are easier; somebody has already made the investment. And we know where those tracks are. And it’s really a matter of embracing them in a way that balances with the other two formats.

Santino Ferrucci, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan Honda, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, start, crash

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Another thing we’ve seen this year has been the idea that sport in general needs to have a sense of purpose; just to be an entertainment isn’t really enough. And obviously across the spectrum from Formula 1 to soccer to NFL, we’ve seen all kinds of social justice messages and as well as topics like sustainability, and diversity. What what’s your own view on that and sport as a platform for good causes?

I feel the first thing is do things that are more than symbolic and that are more than statements. So we are committed to bringing diversity into our sport. And I think we got a lot of work to do to be anywhere near where we should be in that regard. It’s work with the teams and our promoters so that we affect our ecosystem in that way. And then ultimately, it’ll be bringing in crew members and drivers. And our ladder series will be an important part of that. Our pipeline does not look good right now in that regard, but we’re doing some things right now to see what the possibilities are to make a difference as quickly as we possibly can. We do feel responsibility . And sport, as a visible platform, has a great opportunity to keep the issues in front of the public. But in addition to that, just the way I think we’ve got to get our own house in order and be a model more than a symbol. And I hope we can make real progress consistently over time.

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

And finally do you feel that the clear air that everybody’s enjoyed during the lockdown and the way that everybody is more aware of their vulnerability will make the sustainability topic and the shift towards decarbonisation and electric more powerful now?

Well, the air isn’t so clear here, three quarters of the way from California. We’re getting California forest fire air.  And it’s truly really now coast to coast. So it’s top of mind not just as a natural disaster, but as evidence of global warming as are things like hurricanes in the southern part of this country. I think combined it increases the sense of urgency to do all the things we can do about global warming in our environment. Saying that, right now our motto is sort of, “faster and louder”. That’s kind of what our brand is now. We’re not oblivious to sustainability issues. There’s a lot of ways we can attack that part of it is off the track with our promoters and the way we operate our events. Other leagues have done a really good job. On track you’ve seen some discussion about kind of hybrid motors. That’s not to replace the basic engine, but rather, to supplement. And I think that that’s an ongoing conversation that you’ll see some implementation on in the next couple of years. And we’ll see where it goes from there. But I must say right now, our OEMs, General Motors /Chevy and Honda, they want horsepower. They think that we are a great platform for that part of their market. And we’ll continue to fill that expectation.

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