DETROIT — In a maze of about a million square feet of carefully constructed, carpeted booths, as part of an annual celebration that dates to 1899, INDYCAR put its best driving foot forward today in the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center.
Visitors were attracted by the eye-catching silver shine of two Verizon IndyCar Series race cars as well as the legendary Borg-Warner and Astor Cup trophies at the INDYCAR exhibit. A racing simulator provided the opportunity to turn virtual 2.5-mile laps at 230 mph at historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A giant video screen flashed vibrant images from the 2016 season in the background.
Then, in a surprise for many who happened to wander by, that can’t-miss screen revealed concept aero kit drawings for the 2018 race car.
What better place for a proud history to connect with an optimistic vision for the future?
Team Penske’s Joseph Newgarden and Andretti-Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi — two of the series’ brightest young drivers — joined Jay Frye, INDYCAR’s president of competition and operations, in a sit-down with reporters.
But this wasn’t as much about gushing words.
“I’m a big believer in the Missouri thing, the ‘Show Me State,’” said Frye (pictured above with the concept drawings), who once played college football for the University of Missouri Tigers. “My opinion or approach has always been, I don’t like to talk about what we’re doing, I’d like to show it.”
That’s what INDYCAR did.
There’s the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda that Rossi drove to a memorable May 2016 victory in the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Behind that is the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet that Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud drove to the 2016 series championship.
Rossi, 25, and Newgarden, 26, liked what they saw in being shown the sleeker race car concept designs for the first time.
“It looks like a real race car, for sure, which is awesome,” Rossi said. “That's what we need.”
“It takes us back to kind of the glory days, I think,” Newgarden said, his eyes fixated on that videoboard, “which is the direction the sport is heading, and the Verizon IndyCar Series is only progressing forward, and this is a huge step.”
Frye, who took over as INDYCAR president in November 2015, reiterated with these plans that the series has been listening to race teams and fans about designs for the future.
“We had mentioned some of the criteria that we came up with a few months ago, because again, we started this project in April and it's something that was written,” Frye said. “And the fans, it was amazing and overwhelming how much they want this, right? And it was cool the debate they were coming up with of what this should look like.
“So how did we get to where we're at is we looked at '20 years' worth of cars, and you go, ‘That was cool in that car’ and ‘This is cool’ and ‘That was kind of cool,’ so how do you piece that together? Again, that was the aesthetic part. So then once you piece it all together, then it's got to perform, right, you can't put a car together and it goes 200 miles per hour at the Indianapolis 500.”
The car passed an initial model test recently, he said, but the evolution continues.
“We've got a ways to go, but we're definitely in the ballpark,” Frye said. “That was very encouraging. That will help accelerate this whole process.
“We didn't want to show these drawings and then, ‘Hey, guess what? We did a test and it's like, oh, my, it's not going to work.’ So we think this car will work.”
Newgarden, a three-time race winner who joined Team Penske in the offseason, and Rossi reiterated how they appreciate what the series is offering fans now, but there’s always room for improvement.
“INDYCAR is growing,” Rossi said. “This is just another example of how it is. With such a strong direction to the future, that’s what motorsports needs at the moment. It needs forward-thinking people, it needs always to be proactive and not reactive.”
Sitting in front of the Borg-Warner Trophy, where the Californian's facial likeness became the latest to be added, Rossi scanned the INDYCAR area and took it all in.
“It’s amazing to have this display at such a prestigious auto show,” Rossi said.