The new president of competition and operations for the Verizon IndyCar Series tells Motorsport.com how he plans to improve the relationship between the series and its participants. But it's one of several issues to address
“I could not be more flattered at the number of people over the last couple of days who have expressed their support,” says Jay Frye as we stand in the paddock at Phoenix International Raceway. “I think people’s kindness and enthusiasm has been genuine.”
“Hmmm… Let’s see how long that lasts,” would be most people’s understandably cynical response to IndyCar’s former chief revenue officer who has now become president of competition and operations. By accepting Mark Miles’ offer, Frye has moved directly into the crosshairs of teams, drivers and fans. Even the man himself acknowledges that the welcoming bonhomie expressed by such as Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi could be fleeting. “Yeah, I know this is the honeymoon period,” he grins.
It’s hard not to mentally compare Frye’s bullish enthusiasm with his predecessor Derrick Walker’s increasingly beleaguered demeanor in his final few months in the same role. But the contrast is understandable; Frye has the support of those above, below and alongside him; no one has (yet) tried to put a wheel under him and run him out of town. For the sake of IndyCar, let’s hope the new guy continues to be spared that indignity and the need to constantly defend his decisions and motives.
Up close and personnel
And there are reasons for optimism regarding Frye’s future. However inherently invidious his job appears to be, he may yet avoid the wrath and froth that buried Walker by tackling some key issues in a different manner. For instance, Derrick never felt he had free rein to hire and fire in order to assemble his ideal staff lineup, and therefore he was uncomfortable about sharing his responsibilities. But detractors deliberately interpreted that as a curmudgeonly unwillingness to delegate. Frye implies he intends to tackle the staffing issue head on.
“The priority has to be to get with all departments and discuss what we have, what we don’t have and what we need,” he states. “At the end of the day, this is a people business. We’ve got to make sure we have the right personnel in the right positions. Sometimes you have people who have really great qualities that could benefit the company but they’re not able to show that because they’re in the wrong spot. Sometimes also they’re floundering because they haven’t been given the tools they need, or because they can’t keep up because their responsibilities are just so broad.”
Ironically, some – this writer included – feel precisely that way about the role of president of competition and operations. How, for instance, can someone guide the process of creating the next-gen IndyCar or investigate downforce levels for the next oval race while also having to deal with the backbiting and recrimination that follows any contentious call made by Race Control?
Stewards and rules
In that latter matter, Frye hopes a more comprehensible and less complex methodology will be key to appeasing drivers, teams and spectators. IndyCar’s fanbase was perplexed and occasionally outraged in 2015, when post-race bulletins would emerge from the competition department punishing drivers with monetary fines for transgressions that, a year earlier, had earned drive-through penalties. Similarly, teams’ technical rule-breaking sometimes only came to light days later. It seemed like the NASCAR approach of, ‘Let the race result stand, come what may; cheats will be dealt with later.’
“There’s been a lot of conversation about Race Control, and we need to improve that whole situation,” Frye agrees. “Officiating a sports event of any kind is difficult – look at the social media debates after any decision. So we’ll do what we can to reduce that debate in IndyCar.
“The steward system will continue and we want to make sure we’re getting the right people in the steward positions – people who are very knowledgeable about this sport. Then we must give them great tools and train them well. And we must make things very structured right off the bat to create more precision and fewer gray areas. The competitors need to understand what will happen if they transgress, and so we must make it very defined what the rules are and what the consequences will be if they break those rules. And that then needs to be better communicated to our fans, as well.”
So a similar system to Walker’s but more streamlined. A less subtle adjustment will be seen in how Frye deals with team owners. He managed MB2 Motorsports before its merger with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and then ran Red Bull Toyota’s NASCAR team. He believes this insight into life on the other side of the fence will help in his negotiations with IndyCar team owners, all of whom vary between wariness and hostility when it comes to additional expenditure.
Says Frye: “We have great teams and great competitors that create great racing so we need to help them with their operating expenses and make this sport more efficient. Being a former team manager, I’ve already come up with some ideas how we can possibly ease the financial burden.
“Have the aero kits helped differentiate the engine manufacturers? Yes. Did they create competition among our OEMs? Yes; in Honda and Chevrolet we have great partners who are always willing to work with us. But what was the actual effect? Was it too expensive for the teams? From their viewpoint, the aero kits have just added a bunch of costs. So let’s be smart about what we do going forward. It’s very important that we see things not only from the fan and manufacturer perspectives but also from the team perspective.”
That warm and fuzzy feeling of inclusiveness for team owners will be further fostered by Frye’s modus operandi in technical matters – including the next-generation IndyCar. Walker was aggrieved when his embryonic IndyCar XIC concept was aborted even before the team owners got a chance to see it. But again, DW would have been easy meat for his critics who would have willfully misinterpreted and misrepresented the project as being fait accompli. Frye’s philosophy will see him neatly sidestep such potential landmines by openly pooling opinion among the brightest brains in the sport.
“We’ve got a great group in the paddock, there’s a lot of knowledge, and many people who have excellent ideas,” he observes, “so let’s give them a chance to help come up with solutions for future projects. Why not use their resources to develop proposals on how we move forward? NASCAR does that a lot, and it’s how I approach the idea of building a consensus among teams.”
Unless Frye’s skillset includes cat-herding expertise, experience tells us that the good shepherd is going to have to turn gun-totin’ bad shepherd to ensure firm resolutions emerge from such meetings in a well-formed, unanimous and timely manner. IndyCar was rightly mocked for running the ancient-looking IRL cars for nine years, and it’s all too easy to imagine the DW12 limping on to 2020 if some team owners have their miserly ways.
“We’ll still be in charge,” responds Frye firmly, “and there are times when we will have to make a decision based on what we perceive is best for the Verizon IndyCar Series. However, I do think in general we can do a better job of getting teams, manufacturers and drivers involved from the very start.”
That will be an interesting storyline to follow through 2016, because assuredly the next-gen IndyCar discussions need to begin now, if the series wishes to remain attractive to its current OEMs and fans as well as stimulate interest among potential newcomers on either side of the catchfence.
Frye is admirably unwilling to critique his predecessor’s tenure as president of competition and operations, and that’s because he holds Walker in high regard. “I’ve known Derrick for about 25 years,” he says, “and as a team manager I would often ask him questions and learn so much.” Interestingly, he also shares Walker’s capacity for humility. For example, Jay admits he underestimated the intricacies involved in putting together a schedule.
“I’d never realized how difficult it was, getting agreements with tracks, TV, sponsors and so on all in line. I know I was one of those who’d be getting impatient each year – ‘Just put out a schedule already! What’s the hold up?!’ But now that I’ve served as one of those who help define the calendar, I have a much higher appreciation for all the different elements that are involved.
“That said, we should be working on the 2017 schedule already.”
And for those of us who have despaired at the roaming gypsy circus-like nature of the IndyCar calendar in recent years – it seemed half the races were never in the place you last left them – Frye’s adamant that things need to and will change.
"Continuity is a huge thing,” he says. “We need to be doing the best job for the race fans and particularly the local fans that attend our races. They need to know approximately when the events will happen each year so they can plan. Indianapolis 500, and Long Beach – they have been there forever, and so we need to build similar date equity into our other successful events. St. Petersburg is another that has now had that mid-March to end of March slot for some years and we were very happy to confirm its dates for the next three years. We got a great deal of support from the city council. That’s encouraging.”
So too is Frye’s guiding tenet.
“At IndyCar, we want to preside over a category of the sport that more great teams, more great OEMs and more great drivers want to be part of,” he asserts. “We want to start with that ideal and work backward in figuring out how to achieve it.”
But as Frye well knows, the ‘figuring out’ part needs to be achieved the day after yesterday. Despite creating some of the greatest racing on the planet, more of the same won’t be enough to keep the needle moving upward for the Verizon IndyCar Series. These achingly long off-seasons are momentum killers, but there are also those who worry about what will happen after the adrenaline buzz of the 100th Indianapolis 500 has dissipated.
Pile those valid concerns on top of the short-, medium- and long-term problems and projects, and it’s clear that Jay Frye’s jaunty enthusiasm and paddock smarts need to be matched by a real sense of urgency. In reality, the honeymoon ended the day he took his new job.