The Hulman-George family has long needed a change agent to turn around the IndyCar Series and re-energize the month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It appears the family has that in Mark Miles, who became Hulman & Co. CEO in December, and arguably one of his boldest initiatives is taking a big leap forward this week at the Speedway.
On Wednesday, IndyCar drivers Graham Rahal and Ryan Briscoe will turn laps on the Speedway’s 2.6-mile road course in clockwise and counter-clockwise directions.
Rahal and Briscoe aren’t doing it for thrills. Miles is looking for feedback as he forwards his idea of having an IndyCar road race in early May to make the month bigger and better.
IndyCar sources say Miles is eyeing May 10 for the inaugural event and has already opened conversations with potential title sponsors.
Some have complained the wheels have turned too slowly with Miles in charge, mainly regarding the hiring of a new president of IndyCar’s commercial division. Miles has interviewed numerous candidates for the crucial job, which includes finding sponsors and other corporate partners for the series and its teams and has been turned down by at least one candidate. He says the search is ongoing.
But Miles appears ready to pull the trigger on major changes the family could not or would not consider.
While Miles is an Indianapolis guy, he doesn’t have the family’s emotional connections to Speedway traditions, so he’s more able to make tough, objective business decisions.
You may not agree with everything Miles is doing, but it’s difficult not to at least give him a nod of appreciation for the guts it takes to part with such longstanding tradition.
Until this year, racing IndyCars on the IMS road course has only been a pipe dream, often talked about but never seriously considered by the Hulman-George family that runs the show.
The IMS road course has hosted series including the Formula One race from 2000-2007, the annual MotoGP event that debuted in 2008, and the Grand-Am Rolex Series that first competed at IMS in 2012.
The course has been criticized by F1 and more recently, MotoGP racers, for just about everything including being bumpy, dusty, slick (as in no traction) and boring.
Miles admits the course, built in 1999 to host an annual F1 race, will need upgrades before the IndyCar Series is given the green. The idea also would need board approval, where the Hulman-George family would be given veto opportunity.
Miles insists he’s not trying to tread on tradition by having dual IndyCar races in May. He explains that he’s just trying to restore some horsepower to the month.
“We only had a few thousand people on [Indianapolis 500] opening day this year and we keep doing the same things and it's not working,” Miles recently told Racer.com. “I want to protect the Indianapolis 500 but we need to look at what we can do to help the race and IndyCar. We need to make more out of the month and I don’t see how starting off with a road race could hurt it.”
While Miles’ comment to Racer.com may seem a minor proclamation, it’s a major deviation from the kind of thinking that has steered this enterprise for decades. Yes, change is risky business. But as scary as it is, it must be done. The 1970s aren’t coming back. Better to hit the wall trying a different path than running out of fuel sitting in the pits.
So bold is Miles, that he recently turned down a deal worth a six-figure sum annually, because the would-be corporate partner just wanted access to sell goods and services to the series' teams. While Miles said he understands that business-to-business transactions are part of the series, he empahsized that he wants partners interested in promoting the series.
On the Indy road race front, Miles realizes he still has serious challenges to work out quickly. In addition to a title sponsor, he might need board approval to ensure ticket prices are high enough to make a worthwhile profit yet low enough to attract throngs of fans.
And most importantly, he needs to find a way to make sure this doesn’t cannibalize the Indianapolis 500. He could offer a dual road race/Indy 500 ticket, but it’s likely too late to do that in 2014.
Hulman & Co. isn’t the only entity with a lot riding on Miles’ big gambles. Conservatively, the Indianapolis 500 has an economic impact on central Indiana of $200 million to $300 million annually. If that event takes a gut punch from the changes Miles proposes, many will suffer.
Starting another big race here next May isn’t the only thing Miles is looking to shake up. He’s strongly considering adding lights to the massive Speedway. And he’s changing and condensing the IndyCar Series’ regular (spring and summer) schedule while seriously contemplating an international winter schedule in Asia and the Middle East.
He’s also thinking about moving a sports car race held at the track in conjunction with the Brickyard 400, currently held in August, to May or some other calendar spot.
Miles appears poised to sweep the good old days of IndyCar, which haven’t been all that good of late, away. It’s difficult to know, however, if happy days are—or will be anytime soon—here again.