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After rocky off-season, IndyCar drivers get back to work

Associated Press

3/11/2013 6:04:48 PM

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It's 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 open-wheel series.

With the March 24 season-opener finally in sight, IndyCar's 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 as to where the series is headed.

A recently commissioned report by the 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 at Monday's media day said they have no idea what suggestions from the Boston Consulting Group the series is seriously considering.

That includes veteran Scott Dixon, one of the very few who has so far met Mark Miles, who was named CEO of Hulman & Co. in November. Dixon and Miles had dinner and attended an Indiana 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 the eight-hour media day.

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 centre on increased marketing and a stronger television package.

"There's a lot of things in IndyCar that aren't broken, there's a lot less to fix than people think," said James Hinchcliffe. "It's just that some of the big things need to be fixed, and different parties have been giving their opinion. Some points were valid, but some were pretty wide of the mark. In reality, 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 then suggested myriad ways to lure new eyeballs.

AJ Allmendinger raced in the now defunct Champ Car Series, moved to NASCAR in 2007 and will now return to IndyCar in the Indianapolis 500 and at Barber Motorsports for Penske Racing this season. Having benefitted 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.

"There's room for more than one racing series. And there needs to be a strong open-wheel series. If the series is able to market itself better, people are going to watch."