IndyCar stars meet with Penske executives on big issues facing series entering 2024 season

Though the NTT IndyCar Series is exactly two months from the March 10 opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, its drivers already are wide open about 2024.

The annual round of preseason media availability (known as “Content Days” in industry parlance) started Wednesday at the JW Marriott in downtown Indianapolis, where more than two dozen drivers gathered for two days of interviews, photo shoots and social media hijinks.

In an open media session attended locally and virtually by reporters from around the world, several IndyCar stars also gave their impressions of several big-picture challenges facing their series.

Along with the usual parade of cockpit shuffling, it’s been a newsy offseason. The topics have ranged from disconcerting (another delay of the ballyhooed hybrid engine until after the 108th Indy 500, and some concomitant saber-rattling from Honda about its future), intriguing (a new TV rights fees deal will be in place for 2025) and positive (reuniting this week with iRacing after a controversial deal with Motorsport Games failed to produce a new console game).

Against that backdrop, a handful of star drivers were invited to have dinner Tuesday night with top executives from IndyCar, Penske Corp. and Penske Entertainment for a wide-ranging conversation that offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the hot-button issues are being addressed and all that’s still to come.

“(We) were able to ask questions and get answers to questions,” 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi said in confirming his attendance at the high-level gathering. “I think the big message is everything that the fans are saying, none of that is news to any of the people that are in charge of the series or the future of the series. But obviously they are not going to give you a play-by-play and a step-by-step as to how they are tackling challenges and preparing for the future and doing things.

“You've got to trust the process. We all do. But ultimately the people that are running the ship and in charge of the direction are the right people to be doing that. I think there's a lot of positive news that's going to be coming over the next three to five months that people are going to be very excited about. There's been some negativity towards the end of the year in 2023. There's going to be quite a few positive announcements that are coming to start the year in 2024. That's the way life works. It goes up and down. But ultimately there's a really good direction that the series is heading, and I think people are going to be excited about it.”

Graham Rahal, who attended the dinner as an outspoken veteran of 17 seasons, was encouraged by the leadership of IndyCar owner Roger Penske’s son and heir apparent, Greg.

“I think it validated a lot of things I was already thinking were happening,” Rahal said of the meeting. “There's stuff you'll hear about soon I can't speak about that I think are major positives for the sport. Are there things that you would like to see different? Sure. We all have opinions. I would like to see international races. I would like to see us be on the front foot and be aggressive when it comes to Europe.

“There are certainly areas that I would like to see changes, but the reality is that when you sit in a room and you listen to the things that are being done and you really see the things that are being done, they're not stuff that maybe affects or us today, but I think it does on a longer scale, longer-term plan. I feel upbeat about it.”

Six-time series champion Scott Dixon, the most accomplished and experienced driver in the series, already was in a good frame of mind before the meeting because he believes “the health of the series is probably the best I've seen it in quite some time.

“When you look at car count, the teams, the amount of sponsors and the depth of the sponsors is something to be very proud of,” said Dixon, who made his Chip Ganassi Racing debut in 2002 during his second season in CART. “We're kind of at the point now where we couldn't really take any more entries. That's a good position to be in. You've even got other teams that are saying that they could run more cars with the amount of sponsors that they have, but either finding the people or engine leases is kind of the restricting issue at the moment. That's really positive.

“Obviously there was going to be a transition with Roger and his group coming in. Having spent a little bit of time with those people in the last couple of days, I think there's a lot of great things in the pipeline and some big changes that are going to come. With the hybrid thing, that's a difficult situation, but you've definitely got to lay it out in a way that it's going to be worthwhile and reliable, and I think they've done a really good job in not just diving in and creating more of a mess. It's important for the future of the series. When you're a driver especially and when you're so close to it and hands on with it, you want everything to happen as quick as possible, but that's just not reality.

“But I think we're in a really positive spot right now.”

Two-time series champion and defending Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden also left the dinner feeling bullish after “probably a tougher off-season for cadence and news.

“But I really think 2024 can be another great step for us,” Newgarden said. “We have so many positive things going on, so I'm kind of excited about the season finally getting here. It helps when we get back to the track because we just have a great racing product, too. It's easy to forget about it sometimes when we leave the track, but when we're in racing, it's easy to talk about our competition level and the level of racing that we have in this series.

“It was a good check-in (Tuesday) night. I think the Penske Entertainment folks are trying to do a good job of staying engaged with everybody in the series so that we're understanding where they're going and where the plan is. But a lot of good things on the horizon, nothing that I'm going to get into specifically. Obviously, the hybrid is probably the most exciting component of this year, so we're all still in full prep for that, trying to understand exactly how we're going to tackle that post-Indianapolis. That's probably the No. 1 topic right now.”

The hybrid also has been a primary source of fan angst during the offseason. Since being announced in 2019, the new powerplant has been delayed three times while its debut has been pushed back at least two and a half years.

That’s been trying for the IndyCar industry and an audience whose insatiable and unbridled passion is a hallmark of auto racing supporters across the board. Hailed for their brand loyalty that helps attract big-ticket sponsors, motorsports fan bases also are known for their emotionally charged reactions to troubling news on social media.

Those views might be tempered if their concerns were assuaged by having the same premier access to IndyCar power brokers that was afforded for a select few Tuesday night.

So how can the IndyCar stars given that privilege convey the message that their series’ outlook might be better than perceived by the general public?

“It’s a good question,” Rossi said. “I don't know that I necessarily have the answer to it, but let's use an example of Apple. Their stock prices have plummeted in the past couple of months. Are consumers, people -- that are not on the board who are investing in the company -- expecting executives to give them an explanation as to how they're going to rectify it and what their solution is going forward and why X, Y and Z happened? No.

“Because IndyCar prides itself on being so fan-centric, obviously there's a lot of good that comes from that, but then there's also, for lack of a better word, a small amount of entitlement that comes from that. And expecting that just because we're such an open book with everything that we do, that doesn't mean that there's things that go on behind the scenes that need to be worked on and improved and kept under wraps until ready to be laid out for the world. That's the way most businesses and organizations work, so I don't think that should be a surprise for people, that when a bad news situation comes out, there's not an immediate rectification response as to what the solution is because maybe that solution hasn't been created yet, but that doesn't mean it's not being worked on in the background.

"The people that are in charge at Penske Corp, at IMS, at IndyCar, they all have the same love and passion for the sport that we do, and so they're not going to allow things to just fall by the wayside. They may have a different approach and way of problem-solving and going about addressing issues, but it's still with the goal in mind of growing the series, keeping the Indy 500 as the greatest single day sporting event in the world, and making sure that the on-track product we have is better than anything else.

“I don't think that there's anything historically, especially over the past nine years that I've been involved in this series, that should have anyone be casting doubt on that because from year to year, it has grown, it has improved.”

That’s despite the recent setbacks involving the hybrid, which was in the midst of a rigorous offseason testing schedule when IndyCar announced the latest delay. Citing supply chain and vendor woes that have been commonplace since the pandemic, IndyCar officials said they lacked full confidence in producing enough parts for a grid of 27 full-time cars by mid-March but hope to be in good shape by early June.

Though the midseason changeover promises to have a definite impact on a season long championship split between two power units, drivers backed the decision Wednesday.

“I think it's definitely a positive that they're not just abandoning it,” Dixon said. “I think you've got to do it properly in the way that they've done it, and I think the technology is going to be huge. It's a pretty trick system, and something that will hopefully evolve pretty quickly. I'm excited for that part of it. You've just got to roll with it. For me, I just want a car that's fast, and whatever which way you have to drive it. But this will definitely add some pretty tricky driver situations in how you use it, and something that if you use well, I think can definitely benefit you. I'm excited for that side.”

Rahal said the delay will helps his team, which didn’t have the opportunity to participate in hybrid testing (which has been handled by Ganassi, Team Penske, Arrow McLaren and Andretti Global).

“It was going to be a major advantage to those who have tested it and had knowledge of it,” Rahal said. “So I'm glad to see them delaying it. I don't know how I feel about implementing it midseason, but that's a personal thing. I think it's clearly the way of the future. It's clearly the way Honda wants to go. So we need to make sure it happens. I know (IndyCar) got a lot of heat for that deal, but I don't think people realize how hard it is right now to get vendor support. I own a massive business outside of racing and getting parts is damned near impossible and has been for two years, and it's not getting better. It's just getting suppliers to deliver has been a major challenge, and unfortunately, IndyCar got stuck in that. They're going to follow through. We're going to make it happen this year. But I think it was 100 percent the right thing to do to delay. We would have been in serious trouble at St. Pete if we tried to make this happen.”

While the hybrid’s debut tentatively has been set for the second half of the season, there is no timetable for hammering out a new media rights deal. NBC Sports has been the exclusive broadcast partner of IndyCar since the 2019 season.

That deal universally was hailed by drivers who have been frustrated by the previous contracts being split between multiple networks. But the rise of streaming seems to have shifted those views.

“I think you've got to have a combination here of eyeballs and viewership and money,” Rahal said. “We need an injection of money into the sport as much as anything, but you certainly don't want to go to a full streaming platform where there's no eyeballs because that'll have a longer-term effect.”

Noting that NASCAR recently announced a seven-year, $7.7 billion deal split between five media entities for its top three series, Dixon said “I think a lot of these companies need to step up, especially on the pay side.

“I think also that the landscape has changed a ton with that, especially with streaming and so many different outlets,” he said. “If you take a loss in viewership but then take the check, there's a lot of things to kind of really go through, and even if you start to split things like we had in the past.

“I love working with NBC. I think they do a tremendous job. They're a great group of people. But it’s not always about that. I'm just glad I'm not making those decisions. But I think there's a lot of opportunity out there.”