No one disputes the direct line between the exploding popularity of Formula 1 in the United States and the hit series “Drive to Survive,” soon to launch its fifth season on Netflix. So it was only a matter of time before IndyCar, America’s premier open-wheel racing series, would try something similar.
But getting F1’s American counterparts to open the throttle could be tricky – at least at first.
A production crew from Vice Media this week began crawling all over Thermal, California, where the NTT IndyCar Series’ nearly 30 regular drivers started testing their machines ahead of next month’s 2023 season debut. The TV series, “100 Days to Indy,” is expected to air this year on the CW.
IndyCar brass has instructed teams to allow the Vice crews unfettered access, forbidding them from dismissing cameras for any reason. But it sounds like some IndyCar teams – with widely varying degrees of media savvy – aren’t so keen on opening their garage bays to camera and boom-mic operators.
Some teams are planning to push back by equipping drivers, mechanics and team principals with diversionary strategies, according to Marshall Pruett, a longtime motorsports reporter for IRacer Magazine, Road & Track, ESPN and others.
“I can share what I have heard – I won’t name teams, but have heard from some teams … that have said alright, if we can’t avoid that, the one thing you can’t do is make them say words we don’t want to,” Pruett said, reporting in a Thursday video from the posh private motorsports complex at Thermal. “So if someone comes up to you with a mic and it seems like it’s meant to draw controversy, some teams have … been brought in and given ‘standard answers.’ So if you get jammed up with a microphone [you can say], ‘I’d just like to say that our sponsors ABC are the best, and our team is the best.’ Or some version of that.”
Which, to be fair, wouldn’t be all that different from the post-race interviews drivers have given for years. The CW and Vice did not respond to requests for comment.
Their reluctance could soften with time and, of course, success: When “Drive to Survive” began shooting during the 2018 F1 championship season, crews for the Netflix series had to lean heavily on smaller, low-budget teams like Haas and Williams for camera fodder and candid moments. Dominant drivers and teams, like then-defending champion Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, were barely featured in Season 1 and were only ever heard speaking in post-race press conferences and passing b-roll shots.
But once the Netflix series caught fire, suddenly teams like Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari were less reluctant, and crews were capturing all of the glitzy, high-pressure drama behind the scenes. By the end of Season 2, the top teams were all-in, and the show blossomed into an international phenomenon – creating unlikely reality TV stars out of stoic team principals like Red Bull’s Christian Horner and his main rival, Mercedes-AMG Petronas chief Toto Wolff.
Just like that, “Drive to Survive” was running wide open.
F1 viewership popped instantly in the U.S., and the surging interest in open-wheel racing spilled over into IndyCar, where former “Drive to Survive” favorite Romain Grosjean – whose time at Haas included the spectacular fiery crash in Bahrain that earned him the nickname “The Phoenix” – instantly became IndyCar’s most popular driver (despite that he’s yet to win a race since coming over from Europe).
Pruett noted that more than 60 media credentials were issued for the IndyCar test days at Thermal – by far the most he’s seen for spring training – where armed security was a constant presence. “Don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that coming into a race track before,” he said.
Vice crews will surely experience varying degrees of compliance from the IndyCar drivers throughout the season, depending on who they’re shooting.
Penske drivers Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, already working on their second season of “Bus Bros” (a silly, sickly-sweet sneak peek behind the trailer doors where drivers spend their off-track hours), obviously have no problem debasing themselves for entertainment value. And like Grosjean, last year’s Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson and fellow F1 import Felix Rosenqvist have already been through the “Drive to Survive” ringer.
On the other hand, drivers like Alexander Rossi, winner of the 2016 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, are notoriously reluctant to play along with media (though, ironically, he was recently a contestant on “The Amazing Race,” placing fourth). When IndyCar held its “content day” at Thermal last week, making GIFs and short videos of its star drivers to use throughout the season, a visibly prickly Rossi passed on dozens of producers’ requests to act out simple movements for the cameras.
And then, of course, there is four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves who, despite that elite feat, is probably still best known for his ebullient victory in the fifth season of “Dancing With the Stars.” Castroneves has never been shy around a corner or a camera – and with “100 Days to Indy” closely watching, the Brazilian driver known as Spider-Man will be extra motivated to pick up an unprecedented fifth victory at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing at the end of May.
If “100 Days to Indy” takes off, expect the elite teams pushing back at first (we’ll know who they are based on who answers simple questions with sponsor plugs) to come around for Season 2. Until then, it appears there’ll be some caution flags flying around the IndyCar tracks.
“How much transparency is going to come through?” Pruett said. “I don’t know, but some teams are already telling their crews what to say and what not to say, and giving them standard answers.”