IndyCar's drivers eager to get back to work - NBC Sports

IndyCar's drivers eager to get back to work
March 19, 2013, 3:03 pm

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (AP) -It has been six long months since the last IndyCar race, when the focus was still on the drivers and the on-track product. The days since have been filled with politics, drama and debate over how to fix the troubled series.

With the March 24 opener finally in sight, the drivers are eager to get back to work. But they head into the season much like IndyCar's fans - in an odd wait-and-see mode about where the series is headed.

A recently commissioned report by the series owner Hulman & Co. made a variety of recommendations for the series, including adding a three-race playoff and a season-ending race on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Most the drivers this week said they have no idea what suggestions from the Boston Consulting Group the series is seriously considering.

That includes New Zealand veteran Scott Dixon, one of the very few who has so far met Mark Miles, who became CEO of Hulman & Co. in November. Dixon and Miles had dinner and attended a college basketball game last week.

"I think the guy is very switched on," Dixon said. "I think he likes the fact it's a challenge, and I think at the moment he is open to the fact he doesn't know a whole lot about racing. Right now it seems he's just asking questions and seeing what comes back."

Dixon appeared to be in the minority of those who have so far had any interaction with Miles or had any discussions about the direction of the series.

Four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, considered one of the series leaders among the drivers, simply shook his head when asked if he's had any conversations with Miles. Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves asked "Who is that?" during a discussion about current IndyCar leadership.

In fact, there was not a single representative of IndyCar's management team or the competition department present during an eight-hour media day on Monday.

It left the drivers as the spokespeople for the series, a role they are eager to fill. All of them have ideas on how to strengthen the series, and most of them center on increased marketing and a stronger television package.

"There's a lot less to fix than people think. It's just that some of the big things need to be fixed," James Hinchcliffe said. "The No. 1 goal has to be increased television viewership. If we can solve that, then we can work to expand."

The key to increased viewership is getting people to watch the races. The BCG report found IndyCar to be "the best pure racing motorsports league in the U.S. ... but the series suffers from lack of awareness." The report suggested myriad ways to lure new eyeballs.

AJ Allmendinger raced in the now defunct Champ Car Series, moved to NASCAR in 2007 and will return to IndyCar this season. Having benefited in both fame and fortune from NASCAR's marketing machine, he doesn't think IndyCar needs gimmicks for growth and stability.

"I think IndyCar has just got to be marketed better," he said. "I don't know if fans see it, honestly that's part of the problem. Over the last several years, that's what NASCAR has done. They've marketed their drivers and they've told their stories, good or bad. In life now, that's what people are drawn to. If it can be marketed better, the series can be strong."

Tony Kanaan doesn't disagree that marketing and television are the problem, but believes the efforts need to be combined and IndyCar should have a healthier presence on television. He points to all the NASCAR content on TV and argues IndyCar has almost no TV programming outside of a race weekend.

"We have the competition. We have the personalities. We need to get it on TV. NASCAR is on TV every single day," Kanaan said. "We need to put television shows on that show the personalities that tell our stories."

But English driver Justin Wilson, who with Franchitti and Kanaan was part of a driver advisory board last season, wants more focus on the cars.

It's not even clear who will ultimately make the decisions about IndyCar's future.

Although Miles runs Hulman & Co., IndyCar doesn't officially have a CEO since Randy Bernard's firing in October. Jeff Belskus has been acting as interim CEO of the series while also running Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the series is two weeks away from the season opener without a permanent fix.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.