INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Even before the first lap of the Indianapolis 500, many IndyCar eyes are already looking far into auto racing’s future.
To get a snapshot of the health of the sport as a whole, 24-Hour News 8 sought out the opinions of a man who is a huge part of IndyCar history and from another man who has the job of steering it into the future.
From inside the top floor of the IMS pagoda, Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles likes what he sees.
“We’re thrilled!” Miles said.
Of his many roles with Hulman, his most prominent is the job of overseeing open wheel racing. Miles has a long history of working in the sports world, from amateur athletics to professional tennis to the Super Bowl.But a year and a half into his current job, he says he’s still learning.
“Well, I’m fairly new to this,” he said. “So I’m interested in anybody’s good thoughts and constructive criticism. Particularly Mario’s.”
That would be Mario Andretti. The 1969 Indy 500 winner is now the sport’s fastest ambassador. He’s won NASCAR’s Daytona 500 and a Formula One world championship, but he says his heart is with IndyCar.
“I always said that the IndyCar champion is the only all-around champion that you could claim to be,” he said from inside the transporter for the Indy Racing Experience, which he drives throughout the month of May.
Andretti says he’s excited about the sport’s future and many of the ideas of IndyCar’s new leaders. Interestingly, that now includes the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Andretti has changed his views on the re-shaping of the IMS schedule to include that race early in May. Initially, he publicly expressed disappointment about the changes. Among other things, he was worried fans would not turn out for the event and that would get the month off to a stumbling start.
But after the Grand Prix, Andretti is a believer. He says the attendance and the racing were better than he expected.
“To me, as long as it’s successful, go for it,” he now says.
Andretti is not as sold on other changes, though. For example, he does not like the new, shorter, IndyCar schedule.
“This is one area where we have a slight discord,” he said diplomatically before explaining his concerns.
This year the season will end in August, far earlier than traditional.
“Our series needs to go beyond that point, and there’s no argument,” he said.
Miles disagrees. He sees a wheel-to-wheel TV battle with ratings giants like football as a losing game. He also says the old schedule, with several weeks-long gaps, frustrated fans and drove them away.
“We’d start the season and then disappear from a month,” he said. “You had a race in Baltimore Labor Day weekend and then the next race is in Houston is in October. I don’t know how a fan gets that (or) follows that.”
As for IMS specifically, with his enthusiasm bolstered by the 230+ mile-per-hour speeds turned in qualifying this month, Miles absolutely wants a return to “new track records” that commonly happened during the most popular years for the sport.
“If you grew up here, you remember that voice over the (public address system),” Miles enthused. “It was something that happened. It was a drumbeat.”
Andretti sees danger in the chase.
“Could the drivers do it? You’re darn right. Could the cars do it? You’re darn right. Is that really needed? Yes, but then you’re looking for it the next year. Another one. And the following year,” he said, explaining a cycle that he fears would end badly. “And it’s not really necessary, quite honestly. We know the cars could do it, but again, we reach a stage where it could be a disaster also.”
Miles says he’s convinced safety will not suffer in the chase for track records. He says he asked the question as soon as he took the job.
“Why are we that much slower than we were in 1996 of 97. And there were really good answers related to safety, and safety is paramount. And there’s always risks in this sport. But we became convinced we could be really pro-active about increasing safety while we had marginal increases in speed.”
Miles predicts new track records either next year or by the 100th running of the 500 in 2016.
Points of disputes aside, Andretti and Miles say they agree on more matters than not. Both are bullish on the sport and its future.
Andretti’s final words as we part: “The series, in my opinion, is really in good shape.”