IndyCar president Jay Frye has helmed the open-wheel series through a period of resurgence and growth.
In racing circles, Roger Penske is known as The Captain.
And rightfully so, given the way he runs his numerous companies and the success he has earned across various levels of motorsport disciplines.
But for the IndyCar Series itself, Jay Frye is the captain, and his ship has been gaining steam over the past several seasons. Frye was named the president of IndyCar in December 2018 but has been building a foundation for success for much of the past half-decade, serving as the president of competition and operations for the previous three seasons.
During that time, IndyCar has maximized its competition product, growing car counts and sorting out an idealized version of spec car parity between current manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda.
But Frye, who spent the previous 20 years with several NASCAR organizations, also applied his business chops to his current employer — helping to secure the current title sponsor (NTT) and other corporate partners like TAG Heuer and Panasonic.
During his tenure at the sanctioning body, IndyCar has enjoyed television ratings growth, schedule consistency and an authentic competition product.
There remain challenges, of course. IndyCar has promised that a third manufacturer is looming on the horizon for as long as Frye has been employed by the company. A new exclusive television contract with NBC Sports has enjoyed mixed results. And while the Indianapolis 500 is one of the most watched motorsport events of the year, the rest of the schedule sees a considerable amount of falloff in comparison.
But Frye has a fairly large batting average over his three decades in motorsport, and he’s excited for IndyCar’s future.
The following Q&A with Frye was conducted during the NTT IndyCar Series weekend at Texas Motor Speedway and focused on the executive’s vision for the discipline, new manufacturers and increased collaboration with NASCAR.
People often ask my opinion on what our “thing” is @IndyCar….tell them we are #FAST #LOUD #AUTHENTIC and #UNAPOLOGETIC…proud of all of the above….seems these 4 principles will take care of everything else! #MSH/GSD
Autoweek: You sent out an interesting tweet this week where you said that IndyCar’s thing was fast, loud, authentic and unapologetic. What went into that?
Jay Frye: I have actually been asked that. What’s your niche? So, I think that it’s very important that you know who you are, know what you are doing and know where you’re going. You have to be authentic. You strive to be good at it and you work towards that. This is our direction and whatever happens next, as long as we stay within those four principles, I think we’ll be OK. This is what people expect us to be. We are fast, loud, authentic and unapologetic.
And I’ll say, unapologetic was kind of added there at the end. Because it was just fast, loud, and authentic. But I say unapologetic because we know who we are, what we want to do and there is no reason to apologize for that. This is what the IndyCar Series has been for a long, long time and it needs to continue to be this way. That’s where this whole thing started.
AW: Has there ever been any pressure or pushback against IndyCar’s identity?
JF: So when I say ‘unapologetic,’ I for sure didn’t want it to come across as arrogant. I just meant this is what we do. The world is evolving, and the automotive world is changing. So, what does that mean for us? That’s what every motorsport series is asking themselves. So, to me, those four principles are what I do think the IndyCar Series should be … or rather, three, and unapologetic for them. To me, it’s just really important that we remain authentic. Be who you are and be really good at it.
AW: Before the merger, tracks like Texas made up a larger percentage of IndyCar’s identity and now it’s more split between ovals, streets and road courses. Is there room for more ovals moving forward?
JF: I think this is about going back to our four principles. One is, this series is very diverse. So, we have ovals, road courses, and street courses. So, I think the mix, if you are looking at the overall mix, I think the mix is one (oval) short.
Because when we do something, when Phoenix went off the schedule, we replaced it with Circuit of the Americas. COTA is a phenomenal venue. We wanted to go there because it was a natural fit. There was no conscious effort to replace an oval with a road course. The timing was just right. The slot was right to plug them in. Ovals are very important to us, and I would like to do more ovals, to be honest with you.
AW: I’m not going to ask the cliché question about the current status of the third manufacturer. Instead, I’m curious: What is your pitch to OEMs? How do you try to sell them on IndyCar without a showroom similar car?
JF: This also goes back to the question about the tweet. That was one of the questions we get asked all the time by OEMs. What is our thing? And what I tweeted is what I tell them. When we say that, it seems to resonate with them. They like that. They like the authenticity. They want to know who we are, what we’re doing and what we’re about. It was important. And I would say, it’s not if we get a third manufacturer, it’s when. It’s just a timing thing at this point.
AW: When it comes to the engineering side and future engine regulations, what do you offer other OEMs?
JF: A V6 is relevant in the motorsport and in OEM world. If you look at all the car manufacturers, it’s in all of their mixes, so that is something we think is very relevant. Another thing we think is good, at the end of the day, is that the IndyCar Series can also be a marketing exercise. We think our product is very entertaining. We have a very loyal fan base. We don’t look at it as just a technical exercise. We believe we have a product that is fun to be a part of. It’s not expensive. We think the economics are right. We show them a five-year plan and they’re generally surprised in a good way about the economics of it.
So, it’s economical. It’s entertaining. It’s relevant. Those are the three things. You get the largest single-day sporting event as part of the mix too. So, we think we have a good platform and we’ve learned a lot over the past couple of years about what the automotive world needs too.
AW: What can we expect the next-generation engine to look like?
JF: We’ll probably have another round of conversations in the next 30-60 days. There are some things we can do to speed up the show. We’ve embraced the less downforce, more horsepower mantra and that’s the still the direction we want to go. We’ll have more on that coming up soon.
AW: Is that low-downforce, high-horsepower direction about identity, oval safety or something else?
JF: It’s both, to a certain degree, but I really think this kind of racing is our identity. The manufacturer kits, when they first came out, made a lot of sense because it gave them individual identity. But then the two started to migrate closer together.
So we asked ourselves, “What’s the return on investment?” It was expensive. And if the cars were getting closer to looking the same, then why should we keep doing it? And even more so, they started to less and less resemble an Indy car with the rear pods. They looked like they had fenders, and that’s not what an Indy car should be.
The new aerokit races incredibly well, and it looks like an Indy car. Part of it was economics because we could save the manufacturers some money. And lastly, with the old cars, we got to an oval and they were flat out all the time, and we didn’t think that made for particularly great racing. We want to see drivers lift and put the racing back into their hands. You have to drive these cars. We want them to get out of the car and be tired because this is a physical sport. The other car had more of a g-force physicality but with this car, you can see guys get crossed up and fight the steering wheel, and that’s fun to watch. That was our goal.
AW: The exclusive TV deal with NBC has been largely positive, but fans were upset that they could no longer stream Indy 500 practice without a Gold Pass subscription. Is that something you guys will take a closer look at?
JF: NBC has done a phenomenal job. It’s been incredible to have every race on one family of networks because the fans know where to find us. They’ve cross-promoted us with the NFL, NHL and Kentucky Derby. So, it’s been great and we’re looking forward to more of that.
As for the other part, there was some pushback (on Gold Pass), but once they signed up and saw that it was a pretty economical product and looked just like the TV product, they really liked it. Also, this is part of the evolution of television rights. Right, wrong or indifferent, this is a completely different world with streaming than how I grew up. So, this is just keeping up with these times. But I can say that we’ll look at it because we look at everything.
AW: Is IndyCar entertaining guaranteed starting spots for the Indy 500?
JF: We feel good about that format that we have. There is probably room for some minor tweaks. The way it played out from a competition standpoint is exactly the way we thought it should have.
AW: Fernando Alonso says he is not interested in a full-time IndyCar bid. Did you ever personally get involved to sell him on chasing a championship.
JF: If you go back to St. Pete two years ago, we had eight teams and 21 cars. This year, we had 12 teams and 24 cars. So, with our five-year goal, the goal has worked with the arrival of Shank, Carlin and Juncos. There are new owners coming in. As for other teams, it’s up to them and their potential business models.
It’s our hope that they (McLaren and Alonso) come back next year and have a better experience at the Indy 500. We talk to people every day that are not currently involved in IndyCar and we show them paths that would make the most sense to come aboard. For example, Shank has taken a very methodical approach and their goal next year is to run full-time. Everyone has a different pathway that makes sense for them and it’s our job to show any team a way that could work for them.
AW: Kyle Busch says there are not any IndyCar races worth running beyond the Indianapolis 500. How do you change that perception and how do you get the 500’s audience to carry over into the rest of the championship?
JF: I think NBC will play a large role. They are doing a great job. This year, I feel like every race we’ve gone to has felt bigger than it ever has before. So as long as we have methodical growth, and as long as it’s bigger than it was the year before, then I feel confident that we’re going to get there.
AW: What other markets have IndyCar targeted for expansion?
JF: We’ve worked really hard over the past several years to give our current events date equity. Now we have that. The dates are pretty set moving forward. 80-90 percent of it is set, and we know where we are going several years out. So I think that was important to establish. So, expansion … again … COTA was something we had targeted for a while because we believed in the fit. It’s not even a lot. There are some international projects we’re looking at. We have 17 points-paying races but with Indy 500 qualifying, that’s almost like another race. That’s a weekend event. If we ran 20, two more, I think that makes a lot of sense. But we’re not going to force it. It’s about going to the right places and not just adding a race for the sake of adding one.
AW: How does ISC-NASCAR and SMI going private change the feasibility of a shared IndyCar date with the Cup Series?
JF: They’re all friends. Lesa, Marcus and I — we’ve all been in the industry forever. Texas is an SMI track. We’ve been to ISC tracks. Iowa is a NASCAR track. They’re all friends. We have an open line of communication. We do a lot with IMSA and there’s synergy there, with Jim France taking on greater responsibilities. I would say the more we can do to work together for the good of North American motorsports, that would be a good thing.
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