"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman
The Way It is/ New Hampshire & IndyCar's evolving scheduleby Gordon Kirby
It was a pleasure to wake up last Wednesday morning and read the lead story headlined 'IndyCars coming back' on the New Hampshire Union Leader's front page. There it was, above the story documenting General Stanley McChrystal's rapidly unfolding troubles with the White House. It was good to see Indy car racing making front page news in my home state.
Bruton Smith and Randy Bernard have done a deal to bring Indy car racing back to New England after a twelve-year absence. The move is part of Bernard's push to recreate the Izod IndyCar schedule over the next three or four years. Obviously, I'm delighted that IndyCar will be racing at my home track on the last weekend of July next year a week before the new Baltimore street race announced earlier this month.
CART Indy cars raced somewhat successfully in New Hampshire from 1992-'95 with crowds around 50,000 and the IRL ran at the track from 1996-'98. New Hampshire was the first established track to join Tony George's new series but in those bad old days the IRL races in New Hampshire drew small crowds and track builder and original owner Bob Bahre understandably threw in the towel after just three races. Many people believed that was the end of Indy car racing in New England.
But at the end of 2007 Bruton Smith's SMI group bought the track from Bahre for $340 million and renamed it New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Smith installed longtime employee Jerry Gappens as NHMS's executive v-p and general manager. Gappens started his career as a racing writer, working for Speed-Sport News, and is an Indiana native with a great passion for the sport. Looking last weekend at Jim Clark's beautifully-restored 1965 Indy 500-winning Lotus-Ford gracing the cover of the July issue of Motor Sport, Gappens grinned broadly.
"When I was a kid," he remarked. "I built a model of that car. Beautiful, isn't it."
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"We've been working on this with Bruton for almost three years and to finally see it happen and get together with Randy and make it happen is really gratifying," Gappens said. "I promised Randy as the promoter of this venue that I would bust my hiney to make it successful and make him proud of being in New England here at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and I intend to do that.
"I promise you we will promote," Gappens added. "I think the timing is excellent. That time of year is a great time for tourism in our state from Lake Winnipesaukee to the seacoast to the mountains. From July 4th through Labor Day the state of New Hampshire attracts a lot of people. We're going to have a great base of visitors and vacationers here that we want to convince to spend some money in our state and enjoy another event."
Gappens expects a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race will be one of the support races run on the IndyCar weekend. The Modifieds currently run at NHMS at both of the track's Sprint Cup races.
"We will obviously look at the Modifieds," Gappens commented. "That's one of the most popular forms of motorsports here in New England. They put on a great show and match up nice with our track. We have some dialogue with them about their schedule and whether it would make sense for them to add a third event here as a companion series. But we haven't got that far down the road yet. We will have a full weekend of racing and my hope would be that the Modifieds will be part of it."
Bruton Smith added his comments.
"I've enjoyed getting to know Randy," Smith observed. "I really admire his aggressiveness and we expect great things on bringing IndyCar racing back here where it belongs in the great state of New Hampshire.
"We will promote this event nationally," Smith added. "We won't just promote it in New England. It will be a national promotion to bring the emphasis on what we're doing in the great state of New Hampshire. We're going to promote the dickens out of this and make it a big, national event."
Randy Bernard explained IndyCar's view of returning to New Hampshire.
"There are a lot of reasons for IndyCar to race here," Bernard said. "First of all, our fans wanted to see Loudon back in the series. A lot of fans want to see more short ovals and, as we saw at Iowa, short ovals are fantastic. We had seventeen lead changes and Tony Kanaan went from fifteenth to win it. You add that with a great promoter in Mr. Smith who's one of my heroes on the way he promotes. He's aggressive. And then you have Jerry who's from Indiana and that means a lot. If you're going to bring a race to a place you have to believe in the management team and I can't say enough about wanting to come up here."
Bernard elaborated on his pleasure at getting IndyCar back into the heart of New England.
"We have a great fan base here in the northeast," he commented. "Boston I think is the tenth largest market in the United States and I think it's very important for us to try to reach out and bring in as many fans as we can.
"We continue to say that we're the most versatile, fastest race car in the world and we didn't have enough short ovals and New Hampshire is a great short oval. I think it's very important to our audience and our fans that we have to as close to a fifty/fifty split of ovals versus road and street course as we can. As you saw in Iowa there were seventeen lead changes and Tony Kanaan came from fifteenth to win that race and I think that's the type of racing we want to see. "
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"Bruton and I talked quite a few times on the phone and I loved his aggressiveness and his willingness to work with IndyCar," Bernard said. "That's the type of promoter you want. When you can do something over the phone and know it's as good as a handshake to me that's very important. And Jerry is from Indianapolis and that's compelling in itself. We believe he's going to take good care of us up here.
"Bruton is very aggressive," Bernard added. "He wants the best for IndyCar because it helps his tracks and we want partners who are going to continue to try to grow us. That's our number one goal. How to get the most fans into the tracks and how do we get the most viewership on TV and attract the most sponsors we can? We're going to be very accommodating to the type of promoters who want to bring us in and promote us well. And those that don't? I don't think they will stay on the tour very long."
Just before the start of Sunday's 300-mile Sprint Cup race at NHMS Dario Franchitti ran a handful of demonstration laps in one of Chip Ganassi's Target Dallara-Hondas. Franchitti has never raced an Indy car at NHMS and is enthusiastic about racing at the track.
"Short ovals are a lot of fun," Dario grinned. "We put in a great show in Iowa last week and we want to be back in the northeast area and at a great track here in New Hampshire. Because of the problems at Milwaukee and Richmond not coming back on the schedule we were missing some short ovals. I really enjoy them and the fans enjoy them and as Randy said we put on a hell of a show in Iowa.
"So to add another short oval is great and to add a quality one like here in New Hampshire is perfect. It's a flat track and it's going to be fun. I think all the drivers are excited and looking forward to it."
Track founder Bob Bahre has often said the titanic duel betwen Nigel Mansell and Paul Tracy at the track in 1993 was the best race he's ever seen. Franchitti talked about that epic race.
"My engineer sent me the YouTube link to it," Dario said. "He said this will give you an idea of what to expect in New Hampshire. I'm about halfway through it so far. It's pretty spectacular so far and I hear the ending is even better! I think we'll put on a hell of a show here, but it'll be tough to rival that one because that was a pretty exceptional race."
IndyCar CEO Bernard said he's currently looking at many potential new or revived venues and believes his series could sustain a twenty-four race schedule.
"In a perfect world with a perfect television contract I would say twenty-four races are possible," Bernard commented. "But I think that's five years away. We need to show growth and we need to show a bigger audience but we need to make sure we can take that back to the team owners and make sure the team owners can afford to go to twenty-four races.
"I'm trying to bring as many promoters and tracks to the table as possible and go through them on a one-by-one basis and weigh out the positives and the negatives and see which ones are going to make the most sense for our series. We've probably got twenty-four tracks interested in our series and some of those are international venues. I can tell you from the standpoint of the promoters there is that level of interest out there right now.
"We need to make sure we can hit the bigger markets in the United States," he added. "We're also getting a tremendous amount of interest from international markets but we cannot decrease what we have domestically. That's very important."
Bernard stressed that whatever the final number of races the IndyCar series evolves into he wants to strike an equal balance between oval tracks and road and street courses.
"What we want is close to a fifty-fifty balance of ovals versus road and street courses," Bernard said. "We're creating our oval championship and or road and street course championship and the great thing about IndyCar is that it reaches such a diverse audience. If you look at our oval audience and or road and street course audience there are definitely some different demographics between them. That's very accommodating to some of our sponsors so we have to do the very best job that we can to keep it at a fifty/fifty mix."
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"We're looking right now at seventeen or eighteen races, which means we're going to have to cut a couple of events," he remarked. "We're talking to all the promoters to see which ones want to be the most aggressive and which ones are going to work with us the best. The bottom line is we have to showcase our sport in the very best way."
Bernard hopes to have next year's schedule in place sometime in September.
"We'd like to have it done definitely by the end of summer, maybe earlier," he said. "It's one of our top priorities right now."
Bernard freely discussed some other potential additions to IndyCar's schedule in the coming years. Because of his broad partnership with Bruton Smith, Bernard is frequently asked if IndyCar will return to Charlotte.
"I think we would be interested," Bernard said. "But Bruton wants me to work on a couple of his other markets first. [Charlotte] wasn't his top priority. He''s just not ready to take us there yet."
One venue that looks likely to return as early as 2011 is Detroit's Belle Isle circuit, promoted most recently by Roger Penske.
"There's interest there because the auto manufacturers are very interested in Detroit and Roger Penske is very interested in seeing us back there," Bernard said. "If we can accommodate those interests, I think it makes great sense for us to be there.
"I'm receptive to showcasing the sport in the very best places and what venues are going to grow our sport. And when you have all the auto manufacturers that are located in Detroit and you're in the car racing business I think it makes great sense to try to accommodate those folks. Even though they're not involved in the series right now, I think it's a step."
Bernard has also been talking to the Michigan and California Speedways, both of whom used to run 500-mile races for Indy cars but suffered precipitous fall-offs in crowds amid the worst of the CART/IRL war.
"It depends how much interest we have from our fans [in Michigan]," he remarked. "I think that's a very important question to ask in that process. We have talked to the California Speedway. It's a big issue with ISC. They would love California to be part of our series.
"I think our relationship with ISC is good," Bernard added. "What we're trying to do right now is to ask what can you bring to the table that you currently aren't bringing to the table in support of marketing and advertising. On the other side we have to make sure that we have compelling races that are very competitive and exciting."
Other domestic tracks Bernard is talking to include Road America, Laguna Seca and the Milwaukee Mile. He's also interested in trying to get back to the Pacific Northwest.
"In talking to a lot of sponsors they love reaching coast to coast and there's definitely interest in Portland or Seattle," Bernard noted. "That's definitely something we're looking at. It's not in the schedule for 2011, but maybe 2012."
Bernard admitted he's also talking to Quebec City about a possible 2012 race.
"There has been communication there back and forth," he said. "We sent a letter a couple of weeks ago saying we are interested. There are a tremendous amount of promoters out there that are wanting to bring an Izod indyCar series event to their city, domestically and internationally, and right now we need to wade through them, look at the pros and the cons and see what's in the best interests of our sport in the longterm.
"I want to work on the 2012 schedule and get everyone excited and energetic. Next year, when we're making our decisions, we're definitely going to have a lot more tracks to choose from. I've seen some really good momentum. The promoters are very intrigued right now and they're all wanting to talk to us, which is a big positive."
Bernard said, Bruton Smith aside, he's going to stick to one-year agreements with most promoters.
"I like one-year deals," he remarked. "It keeps everybody hungry and makes them want to come back more aggressively the next year if it's a good event. If Bruton comes to me next week and says I want to do Vegas, New Hampshire and a couple other of my tracks and I want to do a three-year deal, I have enough confidence in him that I would do that.
"You look at Eddie Gossage down in Texas and some of Bruton's other promoters, they're excellent, and I think it's in the best interests of IndyCar to put a deal like that together. But with the other events, I want to go year-to-year."
Over the next two or three years IndyCar will introduce a much-debated new engine and chassis formula, plus a bunch of new or revived races. We're all intrigued to see how IndyCar's schedule evolves over the next few years and how its new formula takes shape.
Randy Bernard's plate is plenty full. But with partners like Bruton Smith in general and Jerry Gappens in New Hampshire, he has a fighting chance of forging the transformation everyone hopes for.
Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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