MONTEREY, California. With one of America’s top stars arguably moving into the world’s top racing series, it seems like a good time to reflect on IndyCar’s international status.
At Sunday’s season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the NTT IndyCar Series championship will be reduced to a five-way battle between drivers representing four countries (Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States).
The Borg-Warner Trophy is set to ship on its second European victory tour in three years and Markus Eriksson will be celebrating his Indy 500 win in his Scandinavian hometown of Kumla with the King of Sweden (one of the many newly minted Scandinavian IndyCars). viewers) on the guest list and hope to attend.
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European drivers flood the series in search of permanent housing, and even the best F1 engineers are moving to the best single-seater open-cockpit series in North America.
And all of this comes against the backdrop of yet another season of positive momentum for IndyCar, which has seen growth in cars, sponsorship dollars and TV audiences (especially worldwide).
It’s a drastic transition from a fan base that once seemed obsessed with homegrown stars to the brink of xenophobia.
In a pre-season poll of over 50,000 IndyCar fans, the four most popular drivers were from France (Romain Grosjean), Mexico (Pato O’Ward), Brazil (HÃ©lio Castroneves), and New Zealand (Scott Dixon). The only American in the top five was Alexander Rossi (one of eight regular American riders out of 25 on Sunday’s race).
âWhen I started, it seemed to me that in some cases, American fans almost resent foreign drivers,â Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, who has been a senior executive at IndyCar since 2013, told NBC Sports. “It was like, ‘We need our Americans.’ I think it’s changed a lot and we don’t really hear it like we did 10 years ago. I think Rinus VK and the international riders have a lot of fans in the US. So I don’t think we had to change one for the other.
“I think we’re in good shape in a sense of expansion without any of the old jingoism that can come with it.”
While IndyCar may be outclassed by Colton Hertha in Formula One, it can be argued that the season is still more popular around the world than a five-driver circuit.
In 16 races, IndyCar has featured winners from five countries (one more than F1) and runners-up from 10 countries and five continents (easily surpassing F1, which has only five countries and two continents on the podium in 15 races this season).
The reach was also reflected in the distribution and coverage of IndyCar in the international media.
Thanks to the success of Ericsson, Felix Rosenquist and future IndyCar driver Linus Lundqvist (who won the Indy Lights championship on Saturday), Sweden’s Viasat sent a live team to the Monterey Peninsula this weekend, backed up by Scandinavian broadcaster IndyCar’s live coverage of training and qualifying. and racing this season.
Miles said Sky Sports (UK), Movistar (Spain) and Ziggo Sport (Netherlands that are “crazy about Rinus VKey”) are doing more advertising and requesting more access, video footage and driver interviews.
Drivers like Dixon and Eriksson are wondering if it’s time – especially with Formula 1 set to host three races in the US next year – for IndyCar to revise a schedule that has been restricted to North America for more than a decade.
“We have a lot of international riders from all over the world and it’s a pretty international series now,” Eriksson told NBC Sports. âI think there is an opportunity to take advantage of the fact that we have so many riders from all over the world. If we went to Europe, I’m sure it would be a big hit with the fans and the press. I think there is a lot of potential there. But you have to be smart about where you’re going and how we’re pushing it.”
Even as IndyCar continues to take on new accents, some of its foreign-born props feel American because of their longevity.
In addition to winning four Indy 500s, Castroneves also became a cultural touchstone by winning Dancing with the Stars. Past champions Dixon and Tony Kanaan actually lived longer in the US than in their home countries.
“I’m probably more of a hoosier than a kiwi,” Dixon said. âI have lived in Indiana for 23 years. I don’t know if nationality really matters.”
Miles said, “These guys have been around for a long time and American fans just don’t see them as foreigners. They are considered racers, racers, champions. They have earned respect for their accomplishments everywhere.”
IndyCar seems to have taken a leap forward globally over the last two seasons. It all started with Grosjean’s successful transition from a long career as an average F1 driver to last year’s popular upstart â a path already partially blazed by Eriksson (97 F1 starts) and Rosenquist (who came from Formula E three years ago).
Their results caught the attention of many seasoned drivers who were stuck in the European ranking system with no hope of making it into F1. 21-year-old Dane Christian Lundgaard and 23-year-old Englishman Callum Ilott left the Formula 2 circuit (a notch below Formula 1) to work for IndyCar full-time and were some of the biggest surprises of the season.
Lundgaard could be named Laguna Seca’s 2022 Rookie of the Year, with Ilott going on to be the best second player of Juncos Hollinger Racing.
Both riders signed contract extensions earlier this year that will allow them to stay in the States for a while.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been more of a home to me than I expected, but I’d say it’s definitely grown on me all year,” Lundgaard told NBC Sports. âThere are things I miss from home. I would say that the European culture in terms of racing is probably not very good.
âI am happy to be here. I am happy to race here. Even though[last week’s race in Portland]was a terrible end to the weekend, we were there and at one point we were in contention for the win. It’s more valuable to me than showing up at the racetrack and just hoping something never happens. I feel like we really have a chance. For me, I feel that racing in America was definitely the right decision.”
There were signs that driver migration could also turn into a brain drain threat for the vaunted F1 engineering pool.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing just announced a new CTO, Stefano Sordowho was hired from McLaren Racing to F1 (where he also worked for Red Bull Racing during Sebastian Vettel’s reign in the championship).
Team owner Bobby Rahal credited the move in part to Lundgaard and other drivers “who came and are big supporters of IndyCar because they got frustrated in European racing with trying to get into F1.”
“And here they come, and if you can get on a decent team, you can compete for overall wins,” Rahal told NBC Sports. âOf course you have the Indy 500 which always impresses the Europeans when they come. So I think they see it as a real alternative. And they enjoy racing. They like the atmosphere of IndyCar, not Formula 1. And thatâs why there are a lot of guys in Europe who are seriously considering coming here, because there is such an opportunity.â
Lundqvist may qualify for an FIA super license (the approval required to race in F1), but he is fully committed to IndyCar (where he will receive a seven-figure scholarship next year because of his Indy Lights title).
The Swede sees a gap between the perception of IndyCar inside and outside the racing industry.
“I think it’s just the difference that the general public is looking at him and us drivers,” Lundqvist said. âBecause we drivers know that in order to win an IndyCar championship or win races, you deserve a chance to get into Formula One. But I think with the fans because obviously F1 is so big in the world so (IndyCar) doesn’t get the same recognition, but if you talk to the drivers we really know what it’s like and respect how difficult it is.” .
Lundgaard said: “With the number of European riders looking to come here and me and Callum coming here, it kind of started a chain reaction of people trying to come here and I think it’s just going to help the sport grow.”
Miles said the influx of Europeans is a positive marketing tool for IndyCar.
âThe message is clear: IndyCar is a great place for drivers,â he said. âThey can be competitive. This is world class. I think that our riders are second to none and can race wherever they want if they have the resources, and if they come from Europe and like Grosjean they have fans, then we want to take advantage of that.
âBut I don’t really see the need to develop this story as leaving F1 to come here, or leaving here to move into F1. I just think the point is that these are top notch races and our riders have the best skills.”
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