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The ongoing reinvention of Indycar

Will Phillips, vice president of technology Indycar, explains how the championship is evolving to recapture some of the lost love from fans

John O'Brien

 

 

2014 saw Indycar’s viewing figures improve by an average of 34% per round. This was the second consecutive year of increases in viewers and attracted an average of 378,000 viewers. This, however, is still down on 2011’s average of 402,000. Will Phillips, vice president of technology at Indycar, explains the steps completed, and those that lie ahead for the championship’s continued revival.

What is the state of Indycar at present?

We used to have 400,000 people at the Indy 500. We are getting back towards those numbers now, but we are not there yet. There was a drop off of attendance, and through changes to the format and the event itself, it is picking back up.

The social media aspect is something that Indycar needs to look at, and figure out how to exploit that heading forward as a series. I think the average age of our audience is probably around 49. We have an old demographic and we’ve had a target for the past four or five years to bring that down, but it is a challenge. I’d say it is working, but the numbers down in the under-20’s bracket is very small.

Indycar racing, particularly at the Speedway is very good as an event. One thing the Americans are good at is putting on an event, with the bombers flying over and so on. The fans come for the whole event – some don’t even watch the cars but go just for the atmosphere. When you have 200,000 to 300,000 people all together and to be on the grid to hear that roar from the crowd when the green flag gets thrown, or the announcement goes out ‘Gentlemen, start your engines!’ it's just a phenomenal experience. Making that work on social media – if we can do that, we wouldn’t have to worry about TV audience figures.

What is the plan for Indycar in the immediate future?

In 2015 the new aero kits will be coming on board. In 2016, there is the opportunity to introduce changes to the aero kits, and /or additional third party aero kits coming in to the competition. This is written in to the regulations, so it really depends on the reaction from companies to the publicity generated from 2015’s introduction. 2017 will be, what I suspect, a bit of a transitional year ready for a new engine and new car package in 2018. The current car was originally intended to be 2012 to 2016, but the reality is it will likely get a one-year extension to allow it to run in 2017 too.

By the end of this year, we hope to have the engine regulations defined for two-years for the engine manufacturers to design and build engines that will be ready to run in 2017, and race in 2018. The same for the chassis too, as you can’t just look at the engine alone anymore; if it’s a hybrid, where’s the battery going to go?

Will Indycar adopt a hybridized format?

We have some unique challenges in racing on ovals in addition to road and street events, in that the opportunity for the kinetic energy recovery is limited. Say we have an all-green race at Indy, there’s not much opportunity to recover any energy. But using heat energy recovery, in running twin-turbos as we do, is a great opportunity for it. But how are we going to use it? Is it going to be a fuel-restricted formula? Is it a case of give X amount of fuel, and you have to generate the rest of the energy yourself to complete the 500 miles? Internally, we are putting those ideas together now, and mid-2015 there’ll be some round-table discussions with suppliers both existing and new, gathering their interest and input. We do have to be very careful with it, as there is no point in creating a ‘brilliant’ idea for the championship if no one wants to partake in it any more. We have to have the manufacturers interested and wanting to partake, and from that we can continue to regrow the fanbase that Indycar once had.

What about costs?

Indycar racing isn’t cheap, but it has never been cheaper than it is now. For example per car, a good budget would be US$6m to US$7m for the year. The engine lease, for a unit that does 10,000 miles of running is US$724,500.

It could be cheaper still by there being some competition, but the advantage of the single-spec supply is to drive down costs, but it doesn’t help innovation. Indianapolis has always been about innovation – that’s how the race and the speedway came about and we’ve lost that to some extent with the introduction of the single-spec cars.

Allowing more change and innovation will help reopen that aspect from it, but this year is the 99th running and next year will obviously be the 100th running and that will tie in quite nicely to 2018…

Does the technology entertain, or the racing?

I think both do, we’re very open in Indycar. You go around the paddock, and you can get up to and touch the cars. It’s a very different experience to a Formula 1 weekend. It’d be interesting to see what the access is like at a Formula E event. I’m hoping to go to Miami in March and see for myself. But the access is something you constantly hear being praised, like ‘Wow, we got to meet the drivers’, or ‘We got to touch the car’. Fans like that, and we know that's something we have to improve on further, rather than lose.

What would you like to see for Indycar in the next five years?

More than 33 cars trying to get in to the Indianapolis 500 is something very important to us. And better TV numbers; you can always do a lot with that.

 

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