IndyCar – The Chinese Connection

Apparently, Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company, corporate owners of INDYCAR, has never heard the phrase, “Only Nixon can go to China.” I say that a bit tongue-in-cheek, because of course you can. The Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix has been a regular part of the schedule in recent seasons, and Formula E now has a street race in Beijing, the city where Miles is proposing the Verizon IndyCar Series holds its final event of 2016. This has been attempted as recently as 2012 when a deal to run an IndyCar race around the streets of Qingdao fell through. I’m careful not to say “season finale”, because what it being proposed is non-points race.

With no championship points being offered, there seems to be little motivation for teams to participate. Although in the original article from David Malsher at Motorsport.com, no mention of repercussions or compensation from the league was mentioned, I have to believe that if they’re going to have a decent field of cars, then the league must mandate the attendance of this potential Chinese race for participation in INDYCAR’s Leader’s Circle. Miles was firm in saying that the money to the series would need to be paid up front, but no mention was made about whether those moneys would be distributed to the teams, or how the series was going to enforce participation.

The first question many may have is, “Why China?” As with many questions, the path to the solution is often to follow the money. Honda and Chevrolet have invested quite a bit for their participation in the IndyCar Series, and I’m sure they’d like to maximize the return on that investment as much as they can. China is a huge market for auto manufacturers. It’s one of Honda’s strongest areas of growth, seeing sales in the Chinese market increase by 32.5 percent in 2015 and the 2016 numbers for the first quarter maintaining that growth rate.

Chevrolet’s sales in China aren’t seeing the jaw-dropping growth that Honda’s are, but a 5.2 percent growth rate for 2015 and roughly three times the market share than Honda isn’t a bad market position for the company. In fact, Buick has been China’s most popular luxury brand. Reports surfaced in January of this year that Buick may become a Chinese-manufactured brand and imported to the United States.

Nelson Piquet in Car #27, Menards Conseco Buick -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
Nelson Piquet in Car #27, Menards Conseco Buick — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
The Chinese automotive market is the largest in the world, and so it makes absolute sense that the two manufacturers would want a performance marketing presence there. The question is whether there is enough interest from the Beijing government, and enough cash to fund the event. We’ve seen this movie before in China, and most recently with the announcement of the cancellation of the Boston GP. Promoters’ enthusiasm and government’s interests are seldom in alignment with each other. However, it could be a good excuse to bring back the Buick name to IndyCar!