Monday, July 8, 2013

Ovals: Sadly, It's Going to Be a While

One hundred and four days: The amount of time between the penultimate oval to the final oval in the 2013 IndyCar season.

After seeing five ovals in forty-five days, it will be almost three and a half months before IndyCar heads to another oval, the season finale at Fontana. And if the schedule remains the same as it has been since 2011, it will be two hundred and eighteen days between the last of oval of 2013 and the first oval of 2014, the Indianapolis 500.

Since reunification, ovals have struggled and it's not because the grid absorbed teams from the road and street course heavy ChampCar. It's a mix of hard economic times, IndyCar playing hard ball with International Speedway Corporation tracks and then deciding to play hard ball with Speedway Motorsports tracks. It was bad scheduling moving races all over the schedule from dates that drew healthy crowds to dates during times of the years that conflicted with other events.

Let's go down the list:

Sadly we lost Michigan after 2007 after back-to-back years of bad weather and five seasons of lackluster IRL races which made many yearn for the years of great CART races.

Nashville was dropped after 2008 because of a mix of Firestone pulling the plug as title sponsor of the race, Toronto taking over it's traditional date in mid-July and probably the bigger underlying problem that the track owner, Dover Motorsports, were not making money and Nashville was a causality of the recession as were other Dover Motorsports owned tracks Memphis and Gateway. While Memphis and Gateway have found new owners, both ovals have little to no action with primary use being the tracks drag strips, and Nashville sits abandoned as mother nature reclaims it.

Richmond was dropped after 2009 after SunTrust's contract as title sponsor ended and after the IndyCar aero package had produced a string of bad oval races in 2009. Remember all those changes that were made in time for Kentucky that year? Push-to-pass was reintroduced to IndyCar and for the first time ever on ovals. That's how bad things had gotten in 2009. Either way it didn't matter, Richmond was gone for 2010.

Chicagoland had gone from the season finale the week after Labor Day to the final weekend in August after Motegi was moved to mid-September not to go head-to-head with Long Beach and Homestead became the season finale in late October. While becoming a Saturday night race the start time was too late and night time weather was too cold. What also didn't help the IndyCar date at Chicagoland was the track wanting to move their NASCAR race to mid-September.

Homestead didn't survive moving from the opening round to the final round of the IndyCar season. After moving to extend the IndyCar season into October, Homestead lasted two years as the final round of the championship with low attendance each year.

Motegi was a great event funded by Honda but the Japanese manufacture decided not to fund an IndyCar race for 2012, making 2011 the final running. The horrific earthquake in March 2011 forced the final race at Motegi to be moved from the oval to the road course. The timing never worked out for Motegi. When reunification occurred, Motegi had to make room for Long Beach in mid-April. The move to mid-September was tough because it created a lull at the end of the IndyCar season. Late Saturday night, early Sunday morning race in the United States didn't help the event at all, despite producing some fairly good races.

2011 was a terrible year for ovals. New Hampshire was a one and done shot for IndyCar and a late start time, ill-timed rain shower, poor judgement decision to restart the race after the ill-timed rain shower killed the event despite a reasonable race for IndyCar's first time at the track in thirteen years. Scheduling was also difficult. It was scheduled at the only possible date during the summer. The NASCAR races in mid-July and late-September made it difficult for the event to be slotted into the schedule. Not to mention, the IndyCar race was the same day as NASCAR at Watkins Glen. If only the DW12 had been given a chance to race at New Hampshire, things might have been different.

Kentucky was once a great race for IndyCar. Great crowd, great races and a great date in early-August. The race was pushed to Labor Day weekend. Great move, right? No. It went head-to-head with the largest college football game in the state of Kentucky, Louisville vs. Kentucky. It was then moved to a Sunday in October, the heart of the NFL season and drawing the smallest crowd in the history of Kentucky Speedway by far driving a knife into was once was a great event.

Then there was Las Vegas. One and done after the fatal accident took the life of Dan Wheldon and a tense relationship between the track and IndyCar afterward. The tender relationship with Las Vegas and SMI was probably the final nail in the coffin of any shot of New Hampshire returning for 2012 and strained any chances of another SMI track being added to the schedule.

2013 features six ovals. Indianapolis will always be there. The relationship with SMI and Texas has been improving. Milwaukee is on the fence but has had two really good years after the race was left off the schedule and promoted poorly for back-to-back years. Iowa had a bad 2013 but let's hope the series and track can work on improving for 2014. Pocono had a good crowd and after seeing what the Igdalsky brother's have done to the track in the last few years, they will probably do all they can to make sure 2014 is even better. Fontana had a great crowd in 2012 considering what the crowds looked like during the IRL days. If the racing stays consistent to 2012 and being the season finale helps, maybe the race will have a long term future. The current crop of IndyCar ovals are a great showing of diverse ovals that produce their own unique form of racing, adding to the series already great diversity with road and street courses.

However, it disappointing that's it for ovals. Milwaukee and Iowa produced great racing and there are a few other short ovals that could produce the same great racing for IndyCar as those two do. Deep down, an oval race a month for IndyCar from March to October would be great with the current month of June staying the same (except add a week off between Milwaukee and Iowa to give the teams a break). In theory, March, April, August and September would all gain oval races and increase the total to ten oval races for IndyCar. In reality for these hypothetical races to work they have to make money for the promoters. If they can do that, IndyCar is in business, the fans get a few more ovals and the schedule grows as a whole. Until then, one hundred and four days until the next oval but there are seven interesting road and street course races to fill the void with two this weekend from North of the Border.