NEWTON, Iowa — Story by Robin Miller via Racer.com — LAT Photographic photo — The dichotomy was front and center Saturday night at Iowa Speedway: great racing with another disappointing fan turnout.
That’s the sad but true tale of oval tracks in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Once the pillar of the most popular form of motorsports in this country when USAC and CART were on top, ovals have become an endangered species. Other than Indianapolis, it’s tough to draw anything resembling a crowd.
Texas Motor Speedway, once a stronghold that put 75,000-80,000 people in the stands to watch the Indy Racing League’s version of Russian Roulette, has been sliding recently and withered down to 25,000 (at best) last month.
After an encouraging return of an estimated 25,000 in 2013 following a 24-year absence, Pocono slumped to maybe 15,000 a couple weeks ago. Iowa, which packed the grandstands the first few races for IndyCar, looked about half full last Saturday evening.
Fontana, a big ticket back in the late ’90s when CART was cooking, went away after embarrassing crowd numbers for its IRL races and has struggled since returning to the schedule three years ago. Ticket sales are supposedly down for next month’s finale.
Milwaukee, long the bastion of Indy cars prior to The Split and finally dropped when neither Champ Car or IRL could interest anybody, is trying to hang in there after coming back in 2012 but it’s a tough sell.
And the conundrum for Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles and IndyCar is that it needs ovals to retain its heritage, maintain its status as the most diverse series in the world and remind people why many of them fell for Indy car racing.
“We’ve got to keep ovals and we’ve got to have consistency,” said Roger Penske, who owned Michigan International Speedway and Nazareth Speedway before building the California Speedway in Fontana in 1997 and then selling all of them to ISC. “It’s great racing and it’s part of what we are.”
Michael Andretti, who stepped in to rescue The Milwaukee Mile, echoes The Captain’s thoughts. “We can’t ever stop running ovals,” said the former CART champion who was a badass on the short ones as well as superspeedways. “It’s what sets us apart from everybody else.”
So what’s happened to the culture that thrilled us with A.J., Parnelli, Mario, Ruby, Rutherford, Johncock, Mears and the Unsers? Why doesn’t anybody care to attend anymore? What needs to change?
First and foremost, the oval-track model for IndyCar isn’t working and hasn’t for quite some time. Two-day shows are a waste of time and money for teams and promoters alike. There hasn’t been a crowd for practice or qualifying since the late ’90s at Milwaukee. The old refrain was that promoters needed an extra day to sell tickets, put ads in newspapers and generate interest with qualifying results.
BS. Other than Indy, every oval needs to be one day – practice, qualify and race just like the old days and besidessaving money, it ramps up the intensity and maybe draws more interest. Pocono’s Brandon Igdalsky, for instance, said he had no problem with that concept.
Secondly, ovals have got to change their approach. Texas, Pocono and Iowa had nothing on track except the Honda 2-seater and pace car rides prior to their IndyCar races. They’ve got to start giving the paying customers a lot more for their money – a la street races and road courses. There is always something going on at Long Beach, Detroit, Barber, Mid-Ohio, St. Pete and Toronto, be it Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000, drifting, TUDOR sports cars, Pirelli World Challenge or Robby Gordon’s truck series.
Sure, eight Indy Lights cars (that’s what they started at Pocono) is a joke of prelim and hopefully Dan Andersen’s new car and enthusiasm will restore some depth, but Lights ALWAYS need to run prior to the IndyCar race. You can’t start a race at 3 p.m. and give the fans NOTHING beforehand. That’s ignorant and arrogant.
It rains every race day in Iowa and, just like Saturday, there was a tornado watch and ominous clouds surrounding Newton, so nobody was going to walk out of their door 40 miles away in Des Moines at 5 o’clock and drive to the track in those conditions.
Fans write every week and wonder if IndyCar is going back to Phoenix or Homestead or Michigan… but none of those tracks are lining up to bring Indy cars back and why would they?
But there is one oval interested in giving IndyCar another shot. Curtis Francois, who owns Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill., wants to talk to Miles about a date and maybe a potential partnership. And that may be the key and answer to keeping ovals on the schedule. Instead of charging a sanction fee that scares potential tracks away or puts them instantly in the red, IndyCar might need to be partners with the five ovals still in play. Share expenses and promotion and tap into Verizon’s wealth of available assets to control your destiny and take the message to the people.
USAC always swore it was the sanctioning body and it wasn’t its job to promote its racing and, naturally, that’s why it’s still a 4-letter word mired in the 1950s. IndyCar had best understand that it cannot always depend on tracks like Barber and Sonoma to spread the word and if it doesn’t start promoting its drivers and racing, nobody else is going to.
A good example: there wasn’t ONE LINE about the IndyCar race in last Thursday’s Des Moines Register – 48 hours before the green flag (and that paper does a nice job of covering the race). Last April, nothing in Thursday’seditions of the Los Angeles Times about the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and only one TV station mentioned the race on Saturday night…with polesitter Ryan Hunter REEAHAY. Fans from Philadelphia swore there was nothing about the Pocono 500 in their market.
Of course the tracks have to help shoulder the load but if IndyCar was 50-50 partners in selling tickets, marketing and promoting the event it could make a difference – especially with Verizon on board. IndyCar needs to go Barnum & Bailey and pull out all the stops to try and save the ovals.
Watching the non-stop wheel-to-wheel action at Iowa and listening to the excitement in Paul Tracy’s voice in the NBCSN booth reinforced how vibrant a short track IndyCar race can be and how vital that little oval in the Corn Belt is to this series.
“Before I passed all those cars at the end, it had been a helluva night of racing people all over the track,” said 2014 Indy 500 winner RHR following his 10th-to-first miracle Saturday night. “It’s fast, it’s close and it’s what IndyCar racing is all about. We can’t ever lose places like this.”