Indy Adds Grand Prix
Indianapolis — Indianapolis Motor Speedway is giving open-wheel racing a boost this May.
On Tuesday, track officials said they would add days of on-track activity to this year’s schedule before running the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 10 and holding the biggest event of the IndyCar season, the Indianapolis 500, as scheduled May 25. It’s Indy’s answer to speed week.
“That’s really the first time I’ve heard that term,” speedway president Doug Boles said shortly after Roger Penske used the term during a news conference. “For us, it’s the beginning of May and this is the way we’re going to elevate the month of May, with a brand new event that tells the story of what our drivers do for half the year — run on ovals.”
Clearly, help is needed.
The series has been dealing with dwindling attendance, sagging television ratings and now the loss of its title sponsor. It’s biggest American drawing card, Danica Patrick, left for NASCAR after the 2012 season.
Not surprisingly, the speedway is trying to provide the jump start.
Last week, the board of directors at Hulman & Co., the parent company of the IndyCar Series, overwhelmingly voted in favor of breaking with tradition and holding a second May race at Indianapolis.
Tuesday’s ceremony at the track unveiled details of what will be changing, including a major overhaul of the track’s road course.
The new 14-turn, 2.434-mile course will be run the opposite direction of the 500 on a newly resurfaced track that will be wider, have longer straightaways and three new passing zones. Drivers believe the combination will make it the fastest road course on the series’ schedule and will make for entertaining racing. The plan also calls for taller, bigger mounds — and more of them — around the infield to give fans better viewpoints. The race also will be televised live by ABC and will not be blacked out in Indianapolis, as has traditionally been the case with the 500.
Organizers expect 22 to 26 cars to start the race, which will last approximately 80 laps. Hulman and Co. CEO Mark Miles is searching for a title sponsor.
“I don’t see why it wouldn’t work,” reigning 500 champion Tony Kanaan said. “When I ran Grand-Am here (in July), there were a few places to pass and I think there will be three more places to pass here this time.”
A second road course configuration also could be added for the MotoGP race that is usually run in August. The motorcycle riders have often complained about a slick, bumpy surface that is not good for racing. Boles said MotoGP officials were included in the redesign, which will make the race more conducive to what motorcycle riders want.
MotoGP already has agreed to come back in 2014 and negotiations are underway to keep them here long-term. When asked if a new contract with MotoGP had been reached, given that it will cost $5 million to complete the entire project, Miles said, “there will be by the time we invest.”
Track officials hope to finish the resurfacing by Dec. 1, in time to addi curbing and a signature chicane to the course and, hopefully, hold testing in the spring.
Miles said the family-owned company would ask the Indiana Motorsports Commission to pay for the project out of the $100 million improvement fund approved earlier this year by the state government. And the versatility could put more races on Indy’s future schedules.
“We could bring even more people out here with the addition of other sports-car racing, whether it’s a big event or a vintage event,” Miles said.
The immediate goal is to regenerate interest in May’s events at the speedway, which was Indianapolis’ largest spring gathering place for decades.
Track officials believe the new look and new schedule could increase overall annual attendance at the track by 50 percent by the end of the 2018 season. Estimates put Indy’s current annual attendance figures at about 400,000.
Some of the details, such as qualifying procedures and whether the same pace car will be used for both races, are still being determined. Another possibility is adding an extra award for any driver who wins both Indy races or possibly both races and a pole.
Still, there will be some obstacles.
The inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis will be going head-to-head with all three days of the NFL draft, and it’s possible the NBA’s Indiana Pacers could be hosting playoff games that weekend, too, though that has happened in the past.
Speedway officials aren’t worried.
“I don’t know that’s a concern for us,” Boles said. “Having a points race here at that time, I think will help.”
The start of Indy 500 practice will now be held Sunday, one day later than usual, and less than 24 hours after track workers convert the track from a road course to the traditional 2.5-mile oval. But the long-term goal is to shine a brighter spotlight on the IndyCar Series — and the month of May.
“As we see our sport changing and road races coming in, there is no question this combination and the utilization of what’s here is we need,” Penske said. “I’ve always wanted to run on the road course here, but, obviously, we couldn’t do that in Formula One.
“People talk about the history here, but we’ve got the Brickyard (400) and I think this will help the schedule and I think this will help get people out here.”