|Fred J. Nation is the executive vice president, communications, for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway|
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE MOST MEMORABLE DAY OF YOUR CAREER?
While I have had many responsibilities during my 14 years with IMS and the IZOD IndyCar Series, one of my jobs was to be on the front line in the competition between CART and the Indy Racing League, managing communications for the League. It is hard to keep secrets in racing, but we managed to do that and surprise everybody with the announcement on Carb Day in May 2002 that Honda was leaving CART and joining the League. That moment in the Economaki Media Conference Room lives vividly in my memory. That decision meant that the scales tipped in favor of the Indy Racing League and it was just a matter of time. And it was, though it unfortunately took much longer that we anticipated.
As a racing fan, it was Sam Hornish’s incredible victory in the 2006 Indy 500, nipping Marco Andretti at the wire with Michael Andretti close behind.
THE HISTORY OF THE IRL HAS BEEN TURBULENT SINCE IT STARTED IN 1995. WITH TONY GEORGE OUT AND NEW LEADERSHIP IN PLACE, DOES THE NEW PRESIDENT HAVE ENOUGH MOTORSPORTS KNOWLEDGE TO REINVIGORATE THE SERIES?
Randy Bernard brings a great mix of job experience and savvy to the IICS job. He admitted on Day One that he was not an expert on auto racing. However, he is a quick learner, and he has gained the confidence of team owners, drivers and suppliers, moving IndyCar rapidly ahead in one year. He has a great team of seasoned veterans with him, and he has allowed them to keep doing what they were doing well, while providing a new spark of leadership and promotional savvy.
THE BATTLE AMONG CONSTRUCTORS TO BE SELECTED AS THE BUILDER OF THE NEW CAR FOR 2012 WAS A VERY HEATED AND CONTENTIOUS DEBATE. IN CHOOSING DALLARA, DO YOU THINK THERE WILL BE UNITY AND PEACE AMONG THE TEAM OWNERS MOVING FORWARD?
Unity and peace among team owners? That ranks up there with world peace as a lofty but unobtainable goal. However, our team owners support the direction the IICS is going and the addition of Chevrolet and Lotus as engine suppliers has verified that the Series made the right choice. Team owners are always going to disagree with one another and with the Series to some degree, but they also recognize and respect leadership and decision making when they see it, and they see it in the Series.
THE NEWS OF CHEVROLET JOINING THE IRL CREATES AN ENGINE COMPETITION THAT HAS BEEN UNSEEN FOR SEVERAL YEARS AND IT HAS ALREADY CREATED INTEREST AMONG SOME SEGMENTS OF THE MEDIA. DO YOU EXPECT (NOT HOPE) THAT OTHER ENGINE MANUFACTURERS WILL FOLLOW SUIT?
Since the Chevrolet announcement, Lotus has also agreed to join as an engine supplier in 2012. There are other interested parties, but the gate has closed for 2012. The contract with the current suppliers allows reopening for more suppliers during the next five years, so it is possible. Having said that, two or three suppliers seems to make the most economic sense for the suppliers themselves, as well as the teams, who ultimately pay the bill.
HOW SERIOUSLY HAS FIAT SHOWN INTEREST IN THE SERIES? DO YOU EXPECT THEM TO BECOME ANOTHER ENGINE SUPPLIER IN THE NEAR FUTURE?
There were serious discussions with Fiat and we hope those discussions continue.
WHY WOULD A MANUFACTURER WANT TO INVEST A SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF MONEY TO DESIGN A BODY KIT THAT CAN ONLY SELL FOR $70,000; PLEASE EXPLAIN THE REASONING.
Part of the challenge is to give manufacturers and teams some space to develop the car and innovate. This allows that, while keeping all the players within some boundary. From a marketing standpoint, there is great value to providing a distinctive look for a car. It might be in the interest of Honda, Chevy or Lotus to brand their own car as well as the engine. This is new ground for racing at this level, but we think it will add interest and innovation.
LAS VEGAS IS NOT ON THE 2011 IRL SCHEDULE. WILL THE IRL RETURN THERE IN 2011 or 2012?
A resolution of this is expected shortly.
IN 2011, THE IRL AGAIN HAS NO RACES WITHIN 100 MILES OF NEW YORK CITY OR LOS ANGELES. ARE THERE ANY PLANS TO BRING RACES TO THESE LOCATIONS WITHIN THE NEXT THREE YEARS?
Baltimore is NOT New York and anyone who thinks that race services New York (or that Sonoma or even a non-existent Las Vegas race services Los Angeles) does not really understand either market.
All major racing series want to be in New York and Los Angeles and we are not exception. There are ongoing discussions with possible promoters in both of those cities (but the IRL already has Long Beach, CA). It takes a willing and able promoter, government cooperation, and sufficient investment through sponsorship to make a major racing event work, and that is a combination that is difficult to put together.
A SIGNIFICANT NUMBER OF DRIVERS DON’T APPRECIATE THE HALF OVAL-HALF ROAD COURSE ALIGNMENT OF THE SCHEDULE. SOME ROAD COURSES (AND PARTICULARLY STREET COURSE) ARE STRUGGLING IN THE CURRENT ECONOMIC CLIMATE. DO YOU EXPECT THE OVAL-ROAD COURSE BALANCE TO CHANGE IN THE FUTURE?
The IICS is committed to maintain a balance of ovals and road/street courses. Ovals are important because of our preeminent event, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, and because oval racing is a uniquely American tradition. Classic road courses represent an important part of IndyCar history and tradition. Street courses, the newest form, allow racing to be brought to urban centers, to new audiences and exciting venues. The improving economic climate should help promoters and the series to maintain this unique combination of events that distinguish IndyCar racing from other forms of competition.
COSWORTH HAS A LONG ASSOCIATION WITH INDY RACING. WHAT IS THE STATUS OF COSWORTH RETURNING TO THE IRL WITH THE NEW V6 ENGINE FORMAT?
We hope to see Cosworth as an active participant again, but that is not something that the series controls. That is a decision of engine suppliers.
HOW DO YOU SEE THE PRESENCE OF WOMEN IN AUTO RACING AND THE IRL?
For four decades, IndyCar has had men and women competing on the same field of competition equally, and that distinguishes IndyCar from other sports. Danica Patrick has become one of the best known competitors in American sports. Five women competed in the 2010 Indianapolis 500, and several more women are in the ladder series pipeline. We expect this trend to continue and to help us build audience moving forward.
AS YOU KNOW, THERE HAS BEEN TALK OF MANY OF THE MOST MARKETABLE IRL DRIVERS FOLLOWING TONY STEWART, SAM HORNISH AND DANICA PATRICK IN SHIFTING TO NASCAR. SOME – LIKE DARIO FRANCHITTI – ONLY RETURN WHEN THERE ARE NO OPPORTUNITIES REMAINING IN NASCAR. WHAT IS THE IRL DOING TO KEEP ITS TOP TALENT?
Drivers make their own decisions, based on what they feel is best for their careers. The IICS works closely with its drivers and with future drivers who are interested in IndyCar racing. At the end of the day, drivers take a number of factors into account when they decide while route to take. IndyCar cannot control that. What IndyCar can do is to continue to improve the sponsor environment so that there are sufficient economic opportunities to keep drivers well paid. Driving an IndyCar and a stock car are both difficult, but different experiences. It takes many drivers a lifetime to master the nuances that give them a winning edge. A few can do both, but most choose one direction and stay with it.
IS IRL SATISFIED WITH TEHIR CURRENT TV PACKAGE AND RATINGS?
The televised sports world is difficult and constantly changing. The IICS made the best deal it could three years ago, and we have shown progress. Our core fans appreciate the depth and detail of the Versus telecasts, and we are working with our broadcast partners to continue to improve both the product and the audience reach. We, like most other sports series, are not satisfied with our ratings and that continues to be an area for improvement.
NASCAR HAS SEEN A SIGNIFICANT DROP IN TV VIEWERS SINCE IT PERMITTED IT’S CHASE RACES TO BE REMOVED FROM FREE, OVER-THE-AIR, BROADCAST TV. MOST IRL RACES ARE ON VERSUS CABLE, WHICH HAS AN EVEN SMALLER REACH THAN ESPN. GIVEN THAT MOST OF THE RACES WILL REMAIN ON VERSUS AND THE FACT THAT THE IRL DOES NOT VISIT NEW YORK OR LOS ANGELES, HOW DO YOU PLAN TO BUILD THE IRL FAN BASE IN THE NEXT THREE YEARS?
While NASCAR has seen a drop in ratings, something shared by most sports, it is highly unlikely that is caused by migration of programming traditional broadcast networks to cable. It has more to do with the proliferation of choices available to Americans on broadcast, cable and satellite, causing more and more fracturing of audience.
What will help IndyCar in the next several years is the marketing power of IZOD and other sponsors who are casting our sport in a new light, targeted at younger demographics, along with a better use of social media and other ways to reach fans. As discussed earlier, New York and Los Angeles are targets for us as we build the schedule.
HOW MANY TEAMS DO YOU FORSEE FOR 2011?
2011 should be a healthy year for competition. Our 2010 season was the best in many years for the number of cars on track, and we anticipate the same in 2011, especially since it is the last year of competition for the current generation of cars. This is the last opportunity to use them and teams may very well opt to add cars and drivers for some races.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS MORE IMPORTANT FOR THE LONG-TERM HEALTH OF THE SERIES: AN EXCITING CAR OR AN EXCITING COLLECTION OF WELL-KNOWN DRIVERS?
While we want both, American sports is personality driven. A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Helio Castroneves, and Danica Patrick have become familiar names to root for or against, both for their on track success and their unique personalities and off-track lives. At its core, racing is a unique blend of man and machine and a sport that, in person, excites all the senses. At the end of the day, most of us can identify more with extraordinary talents as well as the foibles of the driver than we can of the car.
DO YOU BELIVE IN LUCK?
While it happens, you usually make your own.
DO YOU HAVE AN IDOL IN AUTO RACING?
I have so many that I greatly admire who I have been fortunate to meet or know. The one driver that always captured my imagination, who I did not know, was Jim Clark. I remember where I was when I heard of his death. There are few such incidents that any of us remember.
IF YOU COULD HAVE DONE THINGS DIFFERENTLY, WOULD YOU?
Like most people, I have made the calls that seemed right at the time. There are few that I would change. The greatest challenge of my career in racing was how to bring a good end to the split in open wheel racing. Its roots went back way before my time, and it took me a long time to understand that. Perhaps I could have done more to hasten its end, but that was not within my power. I always tried to help lay the base for the eventual unification and believe that, along with many others, succeeded as best we could under difficult circumstances.
FOR YOU, IS DRIVING IS A PASSION OR A PROFESSIONAL CHALLENGE?
I did not grow up in racing like so many of my counterparts did, so while I have developed a passion for it, my side of it has always been a professional challenge.
WHAT HOBBIES DO YOU HAVE?
I am a reading omnivore on many subjects. I am old school with more than 30 magazines I try and read and four newspapers a day, along with books, mostly history, politics with a sprinkling of current novels. I enjoy cooking and walking/hiking. I have run two marathons, but those days are over.
Fred J. Nation is the executive vice president, communications, for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and associated companies, including IndyCar. His 40 year career has included experience as a newspaper reporter and editor, press secretary for a United States Senator and a governor, and ownership of his own advertising and public relations firm. He joined the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in January 1997 and over his time there has managed media and public relations, corporate communications, information systems and broadcast operations.
He and his wife Nancy live in Terre Haute, Indiana and have four children and 15 grandchildren.
Article originally published in Italian here and translated to English and reprinted with permission from Lino Manocchia.