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McLaren’s Zak Brown: ‘No other race in the world I’d rather be at than the Indy 500'

McLaren Zak Brown

McLaren’s CEO, Team Principal Zak Brown speaks at a press conference during the third practice and qualifying at the Miami International Autodrome for the Miami Formula One Grand Prix, in Miami Gardens, Florida, on May 7, 2022. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP) (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS – McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown has stood on the starting grid of the most famous races in the world, such as the Grand Prix of Monaco.

That iconic Formula One event will take place on the streets of Monte Carlo on Sunday, but Brown won’t be there.

Instead, Brown will be overseeing his three-driver Arrow McLaren SP effort that will compete in the 106th Indy 500.

HOW TO WATCH THE INDY 500: Details and schedule for Sunday’s race on NBC

STARTING LINEUP: Where the 33 drivers will take the green flag
There is no other starting grid in the world that Brown would rather be standing than at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the start of an Indianapolis 500.

“Absolutely,” Brown told “It is the same feeling when you to Le Mans, the Daytona 500, the Grand Prix of Monaco, and the Indianapolis 500. These are ‘The Masters’ of these different racing series so they all have unique places on bucket lists for a very good reason and it never gets it.

“When you go to the Indianapolis 500, that’s a very big deal. When you are at Monaco or LeMans or Daytona, it’s no different than if you are at a golf tournament and it’s ‘The Masters’ or if you are at the ‘World Series’ it always has that very big feel.”

Brown and McLaren have three Dallara-Chevrolets in Sunday’s race -- the No. 5 of Pato O’Ward; the No. 7 of Felix Rosenqvist and the No. 6 of two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya.

Brown believes this is the best-prepared McLaren effort for the Indianapolis 500 since returning to Indianapolis Motor Speedway after a lengthy absence in 2017.

That’s when two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso drove an Andretti Autosport car under the McLaren banner and led 27 laps in that race. He was a contender until his Honda engine expired after 179 laps.

“I definitely feel this is the best prepared,” Brown said. “I think we have a great, now very experienced driver lineup. We have three very strong race cars and three strong teams. The drivers are very prepared, and the team is very prepared. The Chevy engine is looking strong and was strong in Texas.

“I believe we have as good a chance as anyone, but that anyone list goes 12 deep.”

Even though Montoya is starting in 30th place, the driver believes he can win from that position. When he won his second Indy 500 in 2015, he was involved in an early crash and restarted the race 33rd. He won over Will Power.

“I think there are probably 20 cars and drivers that are capable of winning and three of ours are in that list of 20,” Brown said. “Felix was as strong as Pato last year but had an incident in pit lane and got shuffled back. I think Felix had the best 15-lap average earlier this year at Texas (the previous oval before the Indy 500).

“Juan Pablo has told me what he told you, that he has the car to win it with his experience and knowledge. Who am I to doubt him?”

The difference between Alonso’s effort in 2017 and Arrow McLaren SP this year, is this is an “actual” McLaren program, not a rent-a-team like at Andretti that year.

“Absolutely correct,” Brown said. “In 2017, we brought the driver and Andretti brought the team. Realistically, we did not have a lot of technical involvement. We have from last year onwards.

“I think this year we are really very well positioned.”

Arrow McLaren SP also announced a new shop that soon will begin construction in Whitestown, Indiana, north of Indianapolis.

The target date for a grand opening is by the start of the 2024 season.

It will double the size of the team’s current headquarters to more than 97,000 square feet -- a spacious foundation for a team that secure another building block Friday with the news that O’Ward had signed a contract extension through 2025 .

O’Ward, 23, is considered one of the rising stars of IndyCar. Sunday, he will be a highly marketable star racing in a marquee event.

“The Indy 500 is certainly the biggest event on the calendar of IndyCar and one of the biggest events in all of the world,” Brown said. “It’s no different than the way the NFL handles the Super Bowl. It’s understandable that IndyCar does the same thing with the Indy 500.

“It’s the best race to win in racing because of the competitiveness. Like every racing series, we need to evolve into new forms of media and social media. But you never reach your final destination and there are always room for improvement.

“We all have a role to play in that and everyone can step up and be a part of it.”

Formula One has benefited from the “Drive to Survive” Series on Netflix, that features exclusive, behind-the-scenes looks at the lives of Formula One’s top drivers.

Many believe IndyCar should do the same thing.

“It all helps,” Brown said. “I don’t see it as a knock off. It’s a different market. ‘Drive to Survive’ has had a huge impact in North America, but that’s a different product. The NFL has done something similar to ‘Drive to Survive.’

“Our programming has shown that if you show a different side to the sport, the better.

“Formula One has never been more popular. IndyCar has a fantastic grid. Nashville was a huge success. We’re going to downtown Detroit and sports car racing is looking very good. That’s the three series we are closest to.

“Formula E with our involvement and Maserati’s involvement that series goes from strength to strength. When you talk about those series, I think motorsports is doing very good.”

Brown is emphatic when he says he is surprised that Formula One has reached this level of success in the United States.

“If you had told me 10 years ago that there would be three races in America, I would have placed good money that wouldn’t happen,” Brown said. “Liberty has done a good job growing the series and Austin had a very good crowd last year. I think the three events in the United States are really going to help each other.”

Sunday’s 106th Indy 500 is the first time since Roger Penske purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that he will get to host a race at full capacity.

“If you are a buyer of anything that was live entertainment, you couldn’t have bought at a worse time,” Brown said. “However, someone who makes their living in the sport, there isn’t anyone you would rather have buy the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I think it’s great that we are now back in business because I don’t think we’ve seen the best out of Penske Corp. yet, because they have had one hand tied behind their back because we were living in a pandemic.

“Roger and his organization, now, we are going to see them stretch their legs.”

In 1995, Brown opened Just Marketing International (JMI), which would become among the world’s largest motorsports marketing agencies. He helped bring many top sponsors into IndyCar at a time when the sport was struggling in the early 2000s.

Brown was convinced IndyCar had much to offer and remains that way today.

“The racing has always been outstanding,” Brown said. “Then you have the Indy 500, one of the biggest events in the world. It’s a huge brand. While not everyone follows IndyCar racing, when you say the Indianapolis 500, I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘What is that?’

“It has huge brand recognition with great, diverse racing. Great grids. Great personalities. It has always been extremely competitive with great driers. It had its bump in the road with the split, but it has long since recovered from that.”

Brown lived northwest of Indianapolis in Zionsville, Indiana, for 20 years before he set his sights on bigger goals that ultimately led to becoming the CEO of McLaren Racing.

“I feel very welcome and very at home when I return to Indianapolis,” he said. “I’m a lifer in motorsports, and I had some opportunities internationally, and I got involved in various opportunities in Formula One.”

Brown is even helping rival driver Colton Herta of Andretti Autosport get his FIA super license to prepare him for a potential Formula One career. It’s a deal he has worked out with friend and rival team owner Michael Andretti.

“It’s confusing to explain a super license,” Brown said. “How can you have a driver that has won seven races in a top level of motorsport and then have a handful of drivers in Formula One that don’t have anywhere near the pedigree of Colton is confusing. It’s a points systems that needs to be looked at.

“Colton Herta is a more accomplished racing driver than some of the drivers on the Formula One grid. It’s a points system where he hasn’t accumulated enough points yet. He will achieve that this year in testing with us. That is the extent of the game plan at the moment.”

Brown is a tremendous supporter of Michael Andretti’s efforts to get a Formula One team but realizes it’s going to be difficult.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Brown cautioned. “I would like to see him in the sport. I have a long history with Michael and his investment group. Unfortunately, you have a handful of teams in Formula One that are short-sighted in their decisions.

“I hope Michael sticks with it, and I hope it happens. I’m not sure it will or won’t, but I recognize the value he brings to the sport. I’m not sure all of my fellow teams feel that way.”

O’Ward also has aspirations to race in F1, and Brown said Friday that his new deal would include some test sessions similar to Herta’s arrangement.
“He’s a future champion, for sure and that championship can come as early as this year,” Brown said. “He is only going to get better with more experience. He is a huge fan favorite. He is a great personality. Fans love him. He is very engaging.

“I think he is one of the biggest IndyCar stars and he will grow in popularity even further.”

O’Ward would like to see IndyCar schedule a race in Mexico to capitalize on his popularity, but so far IndyCar wants to grow the series in the United States.

“Mexico has a huge following for motorsports and IndyCar has been there before,” Brown said. “I’m a fan of IndyCar racing in the Americas. We race in Canada and have raced in Brazil, but I’m not one that things we should race internationally.

“Mexico would be a great addition to the calendar, but I trust Roger Penske and Mark Miles to put together what they feel is the best schedule for IndyCar. Mexico has been successful in the past and it will be again. Broadening the reach in the Americas would be a good expansion, but I don’t think with corporate sponsor’s budgets, to sprinkle in races in Germany and England, it would be hard to create enough traction to make those races successful and that is what happened.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500