Indianapolis likely facing big changes

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INDIANAPOLIS — With Indianapolis 500 practice set to begin today, the talk Friday was all about possible changes.

Soon, the historic 2.5-mile oval could have lights, updated seats and better cellphone service. The road course could undergo renovation, and the IndyCar Series could have two new faces running operations.

The first phase could begin next week when Mark Miles, the new head of IndyCar owner Hulman & Co., hopes to make an announcement about at least one new hire in the series. Persistent speculation has centered on Derrick Walker joining the series’ competition division.

Miles would not confirm that move Friday, though three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti told The Associated Press that Walker was actually hired last week.

“One of the things is that we are putting on great races but people have to see them. That to me is the first step,” Franchitti said when asked what can be done to help promote the series. “I think Mark Miles is definitely aware of that, and I think he’s starting to put the pieces in place, starting with the hiring of Derrick Walker.”

Franchitti, who like Walker is Scottish, did not elaborate on the hiring and it’s unclear what role the well-liked and highly-respected Walker would play in the competition division if he took the job.

Miles has reportedly been talking to the 68-year-old Walker for months. He said again Friday nothing had been signed with the general manager of Ed Carpenter Racing.

Walker is committed to being with Carpenter’s team through the end of May.

Miles took over the day-to-day operations last fall after former series CEO Randy Bernard stepped down in late October. Bernard had run the series for three years, presiding over one of its darkest days -- the death of two-time Indy champion Dan Wheldon in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas.

In March, Miles spoke about possibly hiring Zak Brown, the founder of Indianapolis-based motorsports marketing company Just Marketing Inc., as the series CEO.

“He’s interested in doing something with us, and in his case, I think his only interest would be if we put the pieces together and he was the head of racing,” Miles told The Associated Press then.

Miles did not give an update on Brown’s status Friday, saying again only that he hoped to have an announcement next week. He and Brown both attended an Indiana business forum regarding motorsports Friday at the headquarters of Chip Ganassi’s IndyCar team.

As for the track itself, changes could be coming soon after state lawmakers passed a bill that would provide $100 million to the Hulman family to update the historic 2.5-mile oval.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has until midnight Saturday to sign the bill, veto it or do nothing, which would still allow the bill to take effect.

There has been speculation about adding lights for night racing -- something akin to bringing in lights to Wrigley Field in the 1980s.

Other possibilities laid out by Miles include using the money to upgrade seats, expand cellular service that has traditionally been a problem when 275,000 fans show up on race day, creating new digital media opportunities that would allow fans to watch the race from their seats and various renovations. There has been talk about adding a season-ending road course race at Indy to the schedule.

“We don’t have to make that decision till we’re ready to put the 2014 schedule out,” Miles said. “That road course is not as compelling as it might be. If we do a road-course race, we would certainly spend the money to make improvements to it.”

But the lights, whether they’re permanent or rented for a weekend, could help the track generate more revenue.

“Lights would bring some flexibility in attracting other types of racing,” Miles said. “Obviously, a lot of people think it will help with appeal for the Brickyard 400. But we’ll take the next six months to sort it all out.”

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