With the Grand Prix of Baltimore two weeks away, the race's promoter and owner of three cars competing in the IndyCar Series this year, Michael Andretti, was in town recently and sat down for a conversation that ranged from the upcoming event through the streets of the city to current issues in racing.
When it comes to Baltimore, Andretti is still learning about the city, but he did offer insight into how Andretti Sports Marketing has cut thousands of dollars from last year's expenses.
Andretti also shared his thoughts on the debate about penalties for unapproved engine changes in the series and IndyCar chief executive officer Randy Bernard's comments last month about potential adjustments to the rule. The current IndyCar penalty at each race for an unapproved engine change is 10 starting spots in the lineup.
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Light St & E Pratt St, Baltimore, MD 21230, USA
The IndyCar Series will race on a road course at Sonoma, Calif., next Sunday before arriving in Baltimore for the Sept. 2 street race.
Why did you decide to become involved in the Grand Prix here?
I was asked to look at it. J.P. [Grant, a partner in Race On LLC] called me out of the blue, because there was a chance the race wasn't going to happen. For me, being a team owner, I just felt the loss of this race would be a huge loss for the series because this race was such a huge event. It was one of the biggest highlights of the year last year. And I think it would have been a huge loss for the series for this race to go away. So that's what motivated me to get involved. … IndyCar racing is my life.
Did you know Grant before he called you?
No, not at all. I guess he's friends with [car owner] Chip Ganassi. J.P. called Chip and asked if he had any ideas for anybody who could help out with the race and Chip gave him my name and number and J.P. called me. And that's how it all started.
So, he called out of the blue to you. And your initial reaction was?
'Come and let's talk about it, because I don't want this thing to go away.' And, so, I knew how big and great it was. 'We just can't let this thing die, so, come. Let's figure this thing out.' And that was it.
Since you joined the group on a shortened time schedule, how did that affect planning for the race?
It's been a real challenge. But I've got to say we have great people and they're answering the challenge mightily, I think. Everything is pretty much on schedule, which is amazing, you know. We had four months to go and literally form a company and get it going, especially for an event of this magnitude. So, I'm really proud of everybody from Andretti Sports Marketing that's been working their butts off 24-7.
What were some of the areas you saw from last year's race you could cut?
With these events, if you don't control the expenses, you're in trouble. The event did pretty well, revenue-wise, last year. It's just they did horrible, expense-wise. We do have a lot of experience doing these things. We've been able to cut this thing a ton without really cutting anything. There was so much waste that was going on. Everybody had their hand out. Everybody was getting paid for doing nothing. Everybody was a consultant. There was no money left. They blew it all. Wasted it all. Everything is going according to plan. We think 95 percent of the skeletons in the closet have been found.
Your driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was one of several drivers penalized for unapproved engine changes before the race in Edmonton. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard recently said the series will consider changes to the 10-spot penalty in the offseason. What's your take on the situation?
In some ways it does affect the show. It confuses things a little bit, especially for the fans, who don't quite understand. But then I do see why the rule is there. It's there to control costs for the engine manufacturers, basically to protect them from themselves. So if they do come up with a way to do away with it, they're going to have to come up with another way to control the costs. I don't know what the right answer is.
Is a 10-spot penalty on the starting grid a big penalty?
At some tracks it is. On a track like Fontana [Auto Club Speedway, the two-mile oval in California where the series ends the season Sept. 15 with the IZOD IndyCar world championships], not so big. At a place like Mid-Ohio, very big. It depends on how hard it is to pass on the track.
What about here in Baltimore?
Here it could be a big penalty. Not the easiest track to pass on, although I think, without having the chicane [the series of man-made turns on Pratt Street that slowed cars as they approached the first turn onto Light Street last year], it's going to be a lot better. I think there is going to be a good passing opportunity going into Turn 1 without the chicane. But this is one you would prefer not to have that penalty.