Zak Brown sees a future for McLaren in the Verizon IndyCar Series. When it arrives, he’s not certain.
McLaren was a successful fixture at the Indianapolis for the decade of the 1970s. Peter Revson claimed the pole for the 1971 Indianapolis 500 and finished second. Team Penske and Mark Donohue started the winning Indy 500 tradition a year later with the famous M16 chassis. It was the first of what is now 16 wins for Team Penske in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” but it came as a privateer effort and not an official McLaren team entry.
The team founded by racing icon Bruce McLaren finally captured the Borg-Warner Trophy in 1974 and again two years later, both times with Indy car legend Johnny Rutherford at the wheel. Electing to leave Indy car racing and focus on Formula One in 1979, a unique set of circumstances has brought McLaren back to Indianapolis Motor Speedway after nearly four decades away.
Not in the hunt for the Formula One championship this season with its McLaren-Honda entries, Brown, the executive director of McLaren Technology Group, and F1 driver Fernando Alonso joined with Honda for an extraordinary jump into the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, electing to miss the Monaco Grand Prix on the same date, May 28. Honda’s partnership with McLaren and Andretti Autosport, which will prepare and field Alonso’s Indy 500 entry, made for a relatively seamless transition for the two-time Formula One champion.
Brown is hopeful that this year’s one-off appearance by McLaren in the Verizon IndyCar Series could be just the beginning.
“I would like to see McLaren-Honda competing in Indianapolis every year,” Brown said during a news conference Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park when Alonso made his first visit to a Verizon IndyCar Series event, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First.
“Originally, this was an idea that I thought we could pursue in 2018,” Brown added. “Given the circumstances of how we are running in Formula One right now, and given Fernando's desire and Honda's desire to win together, this created a very, very small window of opportunity that we jumped on.”
New to McLaren this year, Brown has deep ties to motorsports. A former racer himself, Brown founded what was Just Marketing International in suburban Indianapolis and catered to clients in INDYCAR, Formula One and NASCAR. Acquired by CSM Sports & Entertainment in 2013, it is regarded as the world’s largest motorsports marketing agency.
The deal to put Alonso in an Indy 500 car came soon after Brown, 45, accepted his new position at McLaren in November. Alonso expressed his burning desire to one day compete in the great race. Brown contacted Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company, the parent of INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to see if any Honda seats were open.
Miles contacted Michael Andretti, CEO of Andretti Autosport. After Stefan Wilson magnanimously agreed to step out of a ride he had secured with Andretti but had not yet been announced, things moved rapidly to put Alonso and McLaren in place.
“McLaren is a big fan of Indy car racing,” he said. “I think (Indy car racing) is fantastic motorsports. I've personally been around it my whole life, so I'm very excited on a personal level to be here.
“And we had just enough time to do this very properly. When I called Mark and then ultimately Michael, it was good that he was already far down the road with the car because we need to be competitive. The whole idea is to run at the front of the field.”
Brown also brought on 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time Indy car season champion Gil de Ferran – who has a long history with Honda – to serve as Alonso’s driver coach as the 35-year-old Spaniard gets up to speed. Brown understands well McLaren’s legacy in all forms of motorsports and would like nothing better than to see the marque back in Indy car racing fulltime.
“Yeah, I'd like to see McLaren here on a more regular basis,” he said. “And would we do it with Fernando again? Absolutely. I hope that we have the problem of Monaco and Indy in the same weekend and we are fighting for the championship.
“So what happens in 2018? We'll have to wait and see because, obviously, we're working very hard to get Fernando and (second McLaren F1 driver) Stoffel Vandoorne a much more competitive car than we are producing right now.”
Looking beyond this year before ever turning a lap at the Brickyard isn’t something the McLaren F1 team boss is ready to do, but he said the Verizon IndyCar Series checks off all criteria for the British automaker.
“I think it’s too early to tell,” said Brown. “However, we have raced in multiple championships many times over the years.
“When we go motor racing, we need to feel we can be competitive, it needs to be commercially viable and it needs to fit our brand. The Indianapolis 500 ticks all three boxes and I think INDYCAR ticks all three boxes. We’ve got Formula One right now, so I’d say it’s one step at a time, but the (Verizon) IndyCar Series is something we’re a fan of and North America is an important market for us. I wouldn’t rule anything out for the future.”
For now, Brown is happy with the shockwave that the announcement of McLaren and Alonso coming to the Indianapolis 500 has created throughout all of motorsports.
“I think it’s big news for everyone,” he said. “I think Formula One wins, I think INDYCAR wins, I think the race fan wins. It’s a great story. It’s a shame the two races conflict most of the time. That adds another level of complexity and that’s what created the opportunity this time.
“I think it’s a great story and the biggest one of the year thus far.”