ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)Michael Andretti had his head in his hands nearly every time the camera showed him during the IndyCar season-opening race.
He started with at least three true challengers to win Sunday on the downtown streets of St. Petersburg, only to see two of his cars involved in airborne accidents and the other two crashed into tire barriers.
Colton Herta was furious with reigning IndyCar champion Will Power, who received an avoidable contact penalty for knocking Herta into the tires. Romain Grosjean was enraged with Scott McLaughlin when a game of chicken between the two for the race lead ended with both drivers in the tire barrier.
Pato O’Ward, meanwhile, could barely speak after a brief power failure while leading with four laps remaining cost him the win. Five drivers failed to complete even the first lap of the race, and a total of 10 didn’t finish. Of the 27 drivers in the field, only 12 finished on the lead lap.
It was a sloppy opener, to say the least.
But did it matter?
“It was a wild weekend I think for everybody, having leaders crash out, it was all over the shop,” six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon said. “Hopefully it played well on TV.”
Indeed, how the race was received by viewers is all that ultimately matters as IndyCar heads into its fourth season under Roger Penske’s ownership rather bullish about its future. IndyCar firmly believes its racing product is the most competitive in all of motorsports and has taken huge steps to showcase it this year.
The drivers at the end of last season collectively sent a formal request for an improved marketing effort that wasn’t received very well by series leadership, mostly because IndyCar already had plans in motion.
Penske Entertainment partnered with Vice Media Group as producers of a docudrama on the buildup to the Indianapolis 500 that debuts in late April. IndyCar also held its preseason testing at the Thermal Club near Palm Springs, California, to spotlight its series for the members of the private club. Membership to Thermal requires the purchase of property inside the club and a standard membership starts at $85,000.
It was at Thermal where IndyCar presented its plans and visions to drivers and team owners, and Mark Miles, CEO of Penske Entertainment, confirmed the financials of the endeavor this past weekend. IndyCar reduced the guaranteed payout it gives to 22 full-time entrants in its “Leaders Circle” program by $150,000 a car to add $3.3 million to its marketing budget.
Miles said he believes the paddock trusts the direction IndyCar is going.
“I understand that we went through the period of planning and could we get the unscripted series done so it was reliable, it was going to happen, and could we put the revenue, the money together really, to fund the investments to do all this?” Miles said. “So we were quiet. So people wondered what was going on.
“I have only seen support. I think the drivers are certainly aligned, and I think the team owners are, too.”
Although Miles said he had heard of some grumbling among team owners about the financial hit, Chip Ganassi swatted away the criticism.
“If that’s making or breaking a team, they’ve got bigger problems,” said Ganassi, the team owner who celebrated the win Sunday with driver Marcus Ericsson. “Granted, it helps, and it does hurt a little when they take it, but if that’s a death blow to your team, you shouldn’t be here anyways.”
One of IndyCar’s biggest challenges is building momentum and, unlike NASCAR and its packed 38-race schedule that has only one off weekend all year, IndyCar races only 17 times. Its follow-up to Sunday’s opener isn’t for nearly a month, with its second race scheduled for April 2 at Texas Motor Speedway.
But IndyCar is off and running from there with an excitement level shared throughout the industry.
“I’m very bullish on the series,” Andretti said. “I’ve always said that I think we have the best racing in the world. I think people are starting to notice it more and follow it more. I feel really good about the future of IndyCar racing.”
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