GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Blog by Race Chaser Online Open Wheel Correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Chris Owens photo — The Indianapolis 500 is still can’t-miss racing and this year’s Saturday night IndyCar shootout at Iowa was hotly contested for all 300 laps.
But aside from a couple of recent examples, it isn’t the quality of racing on ovals that’s concerning. As evidenced by the large chunks of empty seating, too many fans are electing to watch the excitement (or on rare occasions, a lack of excitement) from their couches instead of the stands.
If the problem was that racing on ovals isn’t exciting enough, than I wouldn’t be able to blame anyone who decided to stay home. However, those who chose not to attend races in their area this season would have had no way of knowing that Pocono, Milwaukee, and Fontana would turn out the way they did — even Iowa experienced an attendance issue this year.
American open-wheel racing was formed on and thrived for decades on ovals, but the IndyCar Series calendar has transformed into a street racing series with the occasional oval tossed in. In fact, there are so few ovals that double points were enacted on the 500 mile oval races to even out the points payout between ovals and street circuits/natural terrain courses, in addition to creating additional excitement to entice fans to tune in and attend oval races.
Certainly, the evolution of racing and race cars has resulted in numerous changes for the better, but what has changed between now and then for the worse?
It’s easy to gripe about scheduling and ticket prices when you aren’t the one in charge of the series budget. Then again, improving the IndyCar experience isn’t exactly rocket science either. With a mixture of old and new ideas, it may be possible to resurrect the rapidly fading fascination with ovals…or die trying.
The IndyCar race may be the main attraction of the race weekend, but unless you’re lucky enough to be seated near the infield where you can watch the grass grow too, it’s essentially the only attraction.
Having been to events on street courses and ovals from the perspectives of both a fan and a media member, compare the season opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with the Pocono IndyCar 500.
The street circuit is a staple of the series slate and always brings a strong crowd for all three days of competition. From the moment engines are fired at approximately 8 A.M., there is nary a break in the action until sundown.
But IndyCar isn’t the only show in town — all Mazda Road to Indy divisions hit the track, along with the Pirelli World Challenge, Robby Gordon’s Stadium Trucks, and a variety of goings-on in designated fan areas. Despite a monsoon delay on Saturday at St. Pete this season, fans still stuck around and were treated to fantastic racing as a result.
The same can’t be said for a typical weekend on an IndyCar oval. At Pocono, the Indy Lights series runs alongside the big boys in IndyCar, but just two series isn’t enough to keep fans entertained. Team and driver merchandise wasn’t conveniently located near the main grandstand, and marketing wasn’t particularly good either.
While Simona de Silvestro came to the University of Florida prior to St. Pete in 2013 to drum up interest with her sponsors, residents that same year in Long Pond remarked that they hadn’t seen much advertising for IndyCar’s return to the track, despite NASCAR stickers and posters at every bar advertising the pair of races during the summer.
At Milwaukee, fans mentioned the same issues that plagued the Pocono events. With a lack of effective advertising and minimal on track action, how much entertainment does a casual fan’s ticket really provide?
NASCAR is bolstered by their lower divisions on race weekends, but car counts and stars are abundant in the Nationwide and Truck Series. Without the luxury of big names or series alliances that run on ovals, IndyCar could still do more to boost attendance.
If planned well in advance, why not attempt to put together a race with a local touring division, or an open event for local short track competitors? Not only would these provide more action, but they would bring out local fans who may have watched on television. Sure, local racing fan John Doe knows the stars and cars of IndyCar from TV, but he may actually know the local drivers in person. Any incentive to come out to the track can’t be dismissed and local grassroots fans are among the most loyal in racing.
How much fun would it be to see super-modifieds or midgets race during an IndyCar weekend, especially considering how many famous open-wheel drivers honed their craft in these series throughout the years? Money could be an issue for these smaller teams, but with enough sponsors and a big enough purse, it could be overcome and it would be a lot of fun for all involved!
If you can’t sell tickets, then at least give them away, and who better than to a younger audience? Many fans attracted to IndyCar are older and remember when open wheel racing at Indianapolis or elsewhere was must see television before the split and being buried on cable, but the younger audience has been difficult for IndyCar to obtain and keep.
Heading into race weekend, the promoter has a solid idea of how many people will show up. If thousands of tickets are estimated to remain even after walk-up sales on the day of the event, send ticket packages to schools and local youth clubs in the area. Giving the ticket away to a student doesn’t boost ticket sales, but it will boost sales on items inside the track and expose new faces to the sport. It has worked for baseball stadiums especially at the minor league level, and it couldn’t hurt the series to attempt the same thing.
Many things have changed for the positive in the IndyCar Series, but the league that once boasted tracks like Phoenix, Michigan, Kentucky and Chicagoland has now been replaced predominantly by road courses and street circuits, leaving just six oval races on the calendar and even some uncertainty as to whether all six of those events are securely on board for 2015.
If you’ve watched IndyCar this season, you know the racing is some of the best in the world. However, if the series doesn’t start giving fans more bang of their bucks on ovals, they’ll need to start expecting even less bucks.