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Author: Mark W. Theisen
March 17th 2014 -

WEST BEND, WISCONSIN March 14, 2014:    A somewhat "quiet” off-season for the IndyCar series and the Indianapolis 500 went full throttle in the past ten days with a series of "major” announcements that will have an impact on the series and the 500 as well.

      Trying to put them in order, the latest announcement is of the most significant because it solidifies the IndyCar series for some time to come with the announcement today that Verizon has become the entitlement sponsor of the series.  Verizon, who for the last four years has been the official wireless company of the series and has sponsored Will Power of Team Penske, now takes the bold step to become a primary backer of the series.

    Verizon is the sponsor that Hulman & Company, parent of not only IndyCar but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as well, CEO Mark Miles has wanted all along. They needed a partner that could help grow the series and what more than a leader in the technology arena to do just that.

      Not only will the Verizon be upfront on all logos and advertising it will be behind the scenes as well helping the series capture fans by captivating them with state-of-the-art technology that will be used in many various facets of the series and this spells well for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as well as the 100th running of the 500 is not that far way, 2016. 

      Miles envisions Verizon’s expertise in the information age as a catalyst to improve overall fan experience at the 500 and along the entire IndyCar series.  Additionally with Verizon being a global company the series is now able to reach out across the world as they try to achieve their objective of becoming an international series in the not-to-distant future.

      Miles stated in his remarks that he does not think so much of Verizon as a wireless company but that of a technology company and they are now our technology partner.  "We are in the information age,” said Miles, "and they, Verizon, are now our partner.  "We’ve had a chance to have a lot of conversations with them (Verizon) about the potential development of technology, and it just knocks your socks off and gives me a lot of excitement about the way we can reach fans, provide more value to the teams and the drivers.”

      "Were so eager to get on with it,” Miles continued.  "I haven’t thought of it in the past as whether we skipped a beat or might have from one year to the next but I can tell you that expect impact this year and for all the journalists that cover us and for fans who watch us and fans who don’t know they’re going to watch us but will, there will b a discernible difference this year and it all starts in less than two weeks at St. Petersburg, Florida.”

      On hand for the announcement was Brian Angiolet, vice-president of marketing for Verizon, to offer his insight on the multi-year sponsor deal.  "Obviously we’re thrilled,” said Angiolet.  "I think to Mark’s point, we’ve had a great relationship just as a partner, and then even with the Penske team.  When you look at this, it just became the right time for Verizon to step into this position.  When you think of about the role that technology plays in IndyCar, it just seemed like a great match and we’re eager to demonstrate what all of our technology can bring to the fan base, inside and outside the venue, so it’s a perfect match at a perfect time.”

      The rave reviews from team owners, sponsors and drivers followed the announcement and to a tee all agree that Verizon is the shot in the arm that the series needed to get the word out to the world about the excitement of IndyCar racing.

     As everything is gearing up for the 100th running of the 500, this looks like "a match made in heaven”

     So much has come out in recent days about the 500, primarily Kurt Busch sealing the deal to try and run the Indianapolis/Charlotte double on May 25th and the announcement of change in qualification procedures for the 500.  One may affect the other.

      One can recall Kurt Busch’s "driver orientation” session last May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where he passed all three phases of the test behind the wheel of one of Andretti Autosport’s Dallara Chevrolets.  On the surface it looked like a publicity gimmick, but after the test Busch expressed his desire to compete in the 500 and he was serious. 

     As 2014 began Busch again expressed his desire to run both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 25th and did so during the annual NASCAR media tour.  He said he was 70% sure of the deal at that time.

      On March 4th Busch’s Indianapolis dream became a reality when he announced a partnership with Andretti Autosport to try and become only the fourth driver to attempt the "double” as it is called in the modern era when both events are contested on the same day.  He will try and join John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart as drivers who accomplished the feat.  Gordon was the last to attempt the double in 2004, but had to leave Indianapolis for Charlotte after the 500 was put under a red flag caution for rain. Gordon completed both events in 2002 and 2003.  John Andretti was the first to try it in 1994 and Stewart holds the distinction of being the only driver to complete all 1,100 miles with a sixth at Indy and a third at Charlotte.

      A lot had to take place for Busch to achieve his dream.  He had to have the blessing of his NASCAR team of which Stewart is a partner and he had to have the blessings of his NASCAR engine supplier, Chevrolet, as Andretti Autosport switched to Honda power in the off-season.

    Next was getting in shape. At 35 Busch acknowledges this is probably his one and only shot at the "double”  "It’s going to be a steady progression,” said Busch, when asked of his training and overall effort.  "” have to follow Andretti Autosport’s lead.  We have a full-blown test program to be the best-prepared team we can be for the month of May.  I will be a rookie, but I bring a lot of oval experience in and we’ll see how we can blend that in never forgetting for one moment that I have ‘zero’ laps of competitive racing at Indianapolis in IndyCar, a true rookie, with a lot of work cut out for him.”

     While a sponsor has not been announced for his effort yet, Busch did announce that his personal foundation was merging with the Armed Forces Foundation, where his girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, is the executive director, and he will use his Memorial Day "double” to help raise funds for the effort.

    Three days after Busch made his announcement; the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced major changes in qualifying format for this year’s 500, changes that will contribute significantly, to the chances of Busch actually achieving his dream.

     Miles in his announcement on Friday March 7th said, "Qualifying will be enhanced with three sessions of time trials over two eventful days, with the goal of increasing entertainment value, fan attendance, and TV viewership for the 2014 qualifying weekend on May 17 and 18th.”

     Miles continued, "This new format includes two exciting days of on-track action, all culminating on Sunday with the Fast Nine Shootout.  Fans get to watch their favorite driver’s battle to make the field on Saturday, and then fight for the pole position.  It will be a great show for fans attending the race or watching the broadcast on ABC TV.”

      The format:

     Saturday May 17th, 11:00 a.m. to 5:50 p.m.:  The fastest 33 cars of the day compose the starting field, but not the starting positions.  All entries are guaranteed at least one four-lap attempt to qualify.  Bumping will take place once the 33 starting slots are filled, providing of course, that 33 cars are entered.  The fastest nine entries from Saturday advance to the Fast Nine Shootout on Sunday.  This is different from the past three years where the fast nine ended the day on Saturday with the pole winner know then.

      Sunday May 18th, 10:15 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.:  Saturday times are erased and entries 10-33 must complete another four-lap attempt to determine their starting positions in order of the slowest to the fastest from Saturday times.  Fast nine shootout follows at 2:00 p.m.

     This was all done to try and improve upon televising ratings and fan attendance, to give the paying customer something to come and watch and for the TV viewer, something to turn the television set to IndyCar that is meaningful.  Last year, with just 34 or 35 entries the traditional Sunday Bump Day lacked drama and it was clearly evident by the empty stands.  With ABC stepping up its television coverage of the 500 the Speedway had to give them something and this is what has been chosen.

     This new procedure will cause additional stress on the drivers as they now have to put in two four-lap attempts.  Arguably the most intense qualifying effort of the season has just been doubled and the rain factor has yet to be discussed.  May has seen its share of rain over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway especially on qualification days and the track has not announced what they plan to do should rain dampen day one.  Rain on day two could spill over to Monday. Time will tell.

     What this does to Busch’s air miles is incredible.  Busch is due to compete in the annual NASCAR All-Star race at Charlotte on Saturday evening.  He qualifies for that event on Friday, so will probably practice early at Indy, fly to Charlotte; qualify his cup car and then fly back to Indy for Saturday.  Then back to Charlotte.  With having to re-qualify on Sunday, he will have to come back to Indy where he could have rested in North Carolina on Sunday.  He is looking at over ten round trips between Indy and Charlotte with the new procedure and that does not count in practice sessions.

     What is lost on the whole qualification system is the impact that it could have on a small team trying to run the 500.  Say they are in the top 33 on Saturday but crash on Sunday and with one car things look grim as much as if they crash on Saturday and can not get the car back together in time. The new rules say all entries are guaranteed one four-lap attempt but without a car it is lost.  We’ll see how this all plays well.

      Miles indicated everything they are doing is aimed at 2016.  He hopes to have additional engine manufacturers on board by then, hopes that speeds will escalate back to a point where a new speed record can be safely achieved and that entries will be of a significant number to make everything more exciting dramatic and along the way Verizon will be there to tell everyone about it.  Ambitious plans, but the 100th running comes along very rarely.

      500 entry update: 

     Since my last report the car count is growing. 

      First Bryan Herta Autosport announced that Jack Hawksworth has been hired as their full-time IndyCar series driver for 2014 and will be behind the wheel of their car at Indy and it will be a combined effort with the Bowen and Bowers Motorsports team.  This opens up a distinct possibility of a two-car Indy 500 effort, only a possibility but one that is better than 50/50.

     Oriol Servia has been hired by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for the 500 and for at least three additional series races as the National Guard Sponsorship has attracted more interest for this outstanding team.

     Alex Tagliani has been signed by Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing for their second Indy Car effort.  While just in is infancy the individual sponsorship drive is producing results and Fisher has indicated that she is so impressed with is being done that her team just ahs to do something with the effort.  Tagliani, a former Indy 500 pole winner, brings an enormous amount of experience to this still, rather, young team and it could be just the ticket to take this operation to the next level.  Additionally Tagliani is favored by Honda and I’m sure their input help persuade Fisher to make the move.

     This means I now have 29 firm 500 entries and the "possible” list grew this week with world leaking out that Gordon is interested in coming back to the 500 this year now that he no longer has a NASCAR effort and that Paul Tracy is also seeking a ride and sponsorship aegis. Jacques Lazier is also rumored to partner with his brother Buddy.  Townsend Bell has yet to announce his plans but is said to be close to a deal with KV Racing Technologies.  Dale Coyne Racing, Ganassi Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold and the now officially part-time Panther Racing could all be sources for these drivers.  Former winner Buddy Rice has also indicated he would consider a competitive ride should one become available.   Miles has stated that a full-field for the 500 of 33 is a must; one considers it will become a reality as back stage deals will be made.  It would be nice to see more than 33 for, now Saturday bumping, but I will be glad if tradition is maintained and the series grows by leaps and bounds over the next two years with Verizon providing the "push.”


Stayed tuned for more updates.