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‘It’s an international series now:' IndyCar still racing locally but appealing more globally

Championship contender Will Power makes history with his 68th career pole position, the most all-time in the IndyCar Series, and will start out front for the season finale at Laguna Seca.

MONTEREY, California – So with one of its top American stars possibly moving to the world’s top racing series, the moment seems felicitous to ponder the international profile of IndyCar.

In Sunday’s season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the NTT IndyCar Series championship will come down to a five-way battle among drivers representing four countries (Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States).

The Borg-Warner Trophy is being readied for shipment on its second European victory tour in three years, and Marcus Ericsson will be celebrating his Indy 500 victory in his Scandinavian hometown of Kumla with the King of Sweden (one of the Nordic’s many newly minted IndyCar viewers) on the guest list and hoping to attend.

INDYCAR AT LAGUNA SECA: Details, schedules for watching the season finale on NBC

European drivers have been flooding the series to find long-term homes, and even top F1 engineers are migrating to the top single-seater open-cockpit series in North America.

And all of this comes amidst another season of positive momentum for IndyCar, which has seen growth among car counts, sponsorship dollars and TV audiences (especially around the globe).

Marcus Ericsson_ Scott Dixon_ Will Power_ Josef Newgarden_ Scott McLaughlin - 2022 INDYCAR Championship Contenders - By_ Chris Owens_LargeImageWithoutWatermark_m70038

It’s a decided shift from a fan base that once seemed hell-bent on having homegrown stars to the brink of xenophobia.

In a preseason survey of more than 50,000 IndyCar fans, the top four most popular drivers were from France (Romain Grosjean), Mexico (Pato O’Ward), Brazil (Helio Castroneves) and New Zealand (Scott Dixon). The only American in the top five was Alexander Rossi (one of eight full-time U.S drivers among 25 in Sunday’s race).

“When I started, it felt like American fans had almost a resentment in some cases toward international drivers,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, a top-level executive with IndyCar since 2013, told NBC Sports. “It was, ‘We need our Americans.’ I think that’s morphed a great deal, and we really don’t hear that like we did 10 years ago. I think Rinus VeeKay and international drivers have a significant U.S. following. So I don’t think we’ve had to trade one for the other.

“I think we’re in good shape in sort of a broadening without any of the old jingoism that can come with that.”

Though IndyCar might lose Colton Herta to F1, the case can be made that it still is enjoying a season with more worldwide appeal than the circuit that races on five co.

Through 16 races, IndyCar has featured winners from five countries (one more than F1) and podium finishers from 10 countries and five continents (easily trumping F1, which has only five countries and two continents represented on the podium in 15 races this season).

The reach also has been reflected in IndyCar’s international media distribution and exposure.

Because of the success of Ericsson, Felix Rosenqvist and future IndyCar driver Linus Lundqvist (who clinched the Indy Lights championship Saturday), Sweden’s Viasat dispatched a live crew to the Monterey Peninsula this weekend, bolstering the Nordic TV network’s live coverage of IndyCar practice, qualifying and races this season.

Miles said Sky Sports (United Kingdom), Movistar (Spain) and Ziggo Sport (the Netherlands, which is “Rinus VeeKay crazy”) are doing more promotion and anecdotally requesting more access, footage and driver interviews.

It has drivers such as Dixon and Ericsson wondering whether it’s time – especially with F1 slated for three U.S. races next year -- for IndyCar to reconsider a schedule that has been confined to North America for more than a decade.

“We have a lot of international drivers coming into the series from all over the world, and it’s a pretty international series now,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “I think there’s opportunity there to take advantage of that we have so many drivers from all over the world. If we’d go to Europe, I’m pretty sure it would be a good success with fans and media. I think there’s a lot of potential there. But you have to be clever on where you go and how we promote it.”

Even as IndyCar continues to gain new accents, some of its foreign-born mainstays feel American because of their longevity.

Aside from winning four Indy 500s, Castroneves also became a cultural touchstone by winning “Dancing With the Stars.” Past champions Dixon and Tony Kanaan actually have lived longer in the U.S. than in their native countries.

“I’m probably more of a Hoosier than I am a Kiwi,” Dixon said. “I’ve lived in Indiana for 23 years. I don’t know if the nationality thing really matters.”

Said Miles: “Those guys have been around a long time, and they’re just not viewed by American fans as foreigners. They’re viewed as drivers, racers, champions. They’ve earned respect for their accomplishments everywhere.”

IndyCar seems to have taken a leap forward in global respect over the past two seasons. It started with Grosjean’s successful transition from a long career as a midpack driver in F1 to a popular upstart last year – a path already partially blazed by Ericsson (97 F1 starts) and Rosenqvist (who arrived from Formula E three years ago).

Their results drew the attention of many accomplished drivers who are stuck in the European ladder system with no hope of reaching Formula One. Denmark’s Christian Lundgaard, 21, and England’s Callum Ilott, 23, both left the F2 circuit (a rung below F1) for full-time opportunities in IndyCar and have been among this season’s biggest surprises.

2022 Acura Grand Prix Of Long Beach

LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 08: NTT IndyCar Series driver Christian Lundgaard attends the driver introductions at the 2022 Acura Grand Prix Of Long Beach on April 08, 2022 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

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Lundgaard could be crowned the 2022 rookie of the year at Laguna Seca, where Ilott will start a career-best second for Juncos Hollinger Racing.

Both drivers signed contract extensions earlier this year that will keep them in the States for a while.

“I wouldn’t say it’s become more of a home than I expected it to be, but I’d say it certainly has grown on me the whole year for sure,” Lundgaard told NBC Sports. “There are things I miss from home. I’d say the European culture in terms of racing, probably not so much.

“I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to race here. Even though (last week’s race at) Portland was a terrible end to the weekend, we were there and were fighting for a win at some point. For me, that’s more valuable than showing up at a racetrack and just hoping for something that’s never going to happen. I feel like we actually have a chance here. For me, I feel like racing in America for sure has been the right thing.”

Callum Ilott - Gallagher Grand Prix - By_ Chris Jones_LargeImageWithoutWatermark_m66024

There have been signs that the migration of drivers also could morph into threatening a brain drain for F1’s vaunted engineering pool.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing just announced new technical director Stefano Sordo, who was hired away from McLaren Racing in F1 (where he also worked at Red Bull Racing during Sebastien Vettel’s championship reign).

Team owner Bobby Rahal credited the move in part to Lundgaard and other drivers “who come over and are great advocates for IndyCar because they’ve experienced the frustrations with European racing of trying to get to Formula One.

“And here they come and if you can get into a decent team, you can be competitive for overall wins,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “Of course you’ve got the Indy 500, which always impresses the Europeans when they come over. So I think they see this as a realistic alternative. And they enjoy the racing. They enjoy the ambiance of IndyCar over Formula One. And so there’s a lot of guys in Europe that are looking seriously at coming over here because there is that opportunity.”

Lundqvist could qualify for an FIA Super License (the approval needed to race in F1) but fully is committed to IndyCar (where he will have a seven-figure scholarship to take next year because of his Indy Lights title).

The Swede sees a disconnect between the perception of IndyCar inside and outside the racing industry.

“I think it’s just a difference of what the general public looks at it and us drivers,” Lundqvist said. “Because us drivers know that to be able to win an IndyCar championship or win races, you deserve an F1 shot. But I think with fans, because obviously F1 is so big globally, that’s why (IndyCar) doesn’t get the same recognition, but if you talk within the drivers, we really know how it is and respect how tough it is.”

AUTO: SEP 10 IndyCar - Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

SALINAS, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing driver Linus Lundqvist (26) of Stockholm, Sweden holds his trophy for 2022 Champion for the Indy Lights Series on Saturday, September 10, 2022 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. (Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Said Lundgaard: “With the amount of European drivers aiming at coming here, and me and Callum coming over here, it sort of started this chain reaction of people trying to come here, and I think that’s just going to grow the sport.”

Miles said the influx of Europeans is a positive marketing tool for IndyCar.

“The message is clear: IndyCar is a great destination for drivers,” he said. “They can be competitive. It is world class. I believe our drivers are second to none and can race where they want if they have the resources, and if they come from Europe, and like Grosjean, they have a fan base, then we want to take advantage of it.

“But I don’t really see the need to develop that story as leaving F1 to come here or leaving here to go to F1. I just think the message is these are the highest levels of racing, and our drivers are at the top of the skillset.”

If Herta leaves, his absence would leave IndyCar without an American driver under the age of 30. But the pool of U.S. contenders still would include Newgarden (who can win his third championship Sunday), Rossi (eight wins including the 2016 Indy 500) and six-time winner Graham Rahal.

Up-and-coming rookies Kyle Kirkwood and David Malukas also have shown enough promise to quell concerns the series might lack for Americans.

“The whole conversation to me was always so silly,” Newgarden said. “What I like about IndyCar is you have the best from around the world, and it wouldn’t be as impactful or meaningful if you didn’t have that. I’ve always wanted the best from England and Europe and Australia and New Zealand, Asia, South America. You want the best of the best.

Josef Newgarden - 2022 INDYCAR Championship Contenders - By_ Joe Skibinski_LargeImageWithoutWatermark_m70037

“If it was just a bunch of Americans running together, who would care? I wouldn’t. It wouldn’t mean as much to me. I like that we have successful Americans. I think we should have representatives from this country, but it should be balanced.

“We’ve definitely had a bigger influx of American talent over the last five to seven years, which has been fantastic to see, but I don’t want to see the pendulum swing the other way where we just have Americans and don’t have the representation from everywhere else. Because as much of a domestic championship that IndyCar is, I still think it has a world appeal. It’s a global sport in a lot of ways. We garner the best talent from around the world, which is essential.”

Conor Daly, an American who raced in European junior categories before starting an IndyCar career in 2015, believes if Herta does move to F1 “it would be the greatest thing to happen to IndyCar since Jimmie Johnson” joined the series from NASCAR.

“I think our series is still super strong,” Daly told NBC Sports. “If anything, (Herta moving to F1) strengthens it even more. Because if all of a sudden any of these young folks that are in F2 or Indy Lights or whatever you think, ‘Hey if I get in IndyCar and do really well right out of the gate, maybe you go to Formula One.’ At least it puts (IndyCar) on the map, which I like. And Colton can always come back eventually.

“When you look at the series in general, there’s always going to be a diversity of where each driver came from, even in Formula One. You’ve got several different countries represented. So it’s the same over here, which is great. But we always have an American in the fight. We had Josef out there. We’ve got Colton out there. Kyle Kirkwood I think is going to be really good. And I’d like to be up there, too. You want the best of the best competing no matter where they’re from.”

Ericsson, who raced F1 from 2014-18, says Herta has “all the tools to be successful” in the series.

“I think it’s a loss that Colton won’t be here because he’s a great character, a tremendous driver and one of the most talented guys in the field, but I’m a big believer of growing the sport,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “Getting Colton there with his history in IndyCar is going to put even more focus on IndyCar internationally. That he comes from IndyCar as the American guy doing well in Formula One and all that. So I think it’s going to be good for IndyCar as well if Colton gets his chance there. I’m convinced if he gets the chance, I really think he will do well.”

While he trumpets IndyCar’s inroads internationally, Miles treads lightly when asked whether the series needs to push back harder on F1’s claim to global superiority.

“No, we’re not running against F1,” Miles said. “We do believe it’s an industry, and we’re making progress, they’re making progress. And I think in some ways that growth for motorsports is good for everybody. So I don’t think of it that way. We just need to keep our heads down and execute our plans well.

“The first day that Liberty Media bought the rights to Formula One, they were saying their ambition is to have three races in the United States. They talked about them trying to be Super Bowl-esque, big festivals, and we always assumed that they would get there. So three events of that ilk are terrific for the sport and terrific for them. I don’t think that they come at our expense. I might think about it differently if they decide they want to have 15 races in the U.S., but that’s not where they’re going.”

Still, with Las Vegas joining Miami and Austin on the 2023 schedule, F1 will have three times as many American races as IndyCar does outside U.S. borders (Toronto has been the only international stop since 2013).

Dixon is lobbying to bring IndyCar to Canada and Mexico.

“I feel like there’s a lot more potential there,” he said. “I feel like the only restriction right now is for whatever reason they seem to just want to keep it North American based.

Scott Dixon - 2022 INDYCAR Championship Contenders - By_ Joe Skibinski_LargeImageWithoutWatermark_m70032

“You definitely don’t want to go head to head with Formula One. That’s a different thing. Surely you can race in countries where they race. They do one race in most of the countries they go to, so I think there’s always especially more potential when you have maybe drivers from those countries. That’s a pretty big pool.

“Even if it is Mexico with Pato (O’Ward) or Spain with Alex (Palou), or even Sweden with the Swedish drivers. I think a lot of these countries have a really strong (fan base). Like New Zealand would be an easy sellout. Obviously, it’s much more difficult logistically to take something that far away. But financially and as far as from a promoter’s standpoint and even from a company’s standpoint, it wouldn’t be that difficult to pull off.”

Said Ericsson: “I think IndyCar needs to take the fight to F1. I think we can coexist and both be good championships. I do think there is potential for IndyCar to grow bigger around the world. Sweden is a good example where no one really know about IndyCar racing before 2019 when me and Felix both went here, and suddenly now, there’s the same amount or even more people watching IndyCar than Formula One. They love it and think the racing is amazing.

“But in the rest of the world there’s a lot of people that don’t really know about IndyCar. So I think there’s huge potential there, but I also understand the costs around going overseas. You get the calculations right, I think there’s definitely potential because in Formula One many times the racing isn’t as good as in IndyCar, so I think people would really appreciate watching IndyCar if they knew about it.”