Friday, August 14, 2015

The Fontana Gut Punch

IndyCar will not return to Fontana in 2016. Graham Rahal's victory comes ten years after Dario Franchitti won on the 2-mile oval and the Scotsman's victory was the last time IndyCar went to the track before a seven-year hiatus. Now, who knows if IndyCar will ever return to the Southern California oval.

It's a shame because Fontana is the race that will be remembered the most when someone says, "2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season" (unless things go batshit crazy in the final two weeks, which is possible). Record amount of lead changes, controversy and danger. What else could you ask for? Whether the race left you with the hair on the back of your neck standing because of the thrill or because of fear, it is the race that we will not be able to forget. It got people's attention, got IndyCar a very nice TV audience and was the start for an upward swing in IndyCar TV ratings this summer. Attendance was awful but that is what is expected when you hold a race in a desert at the beginning of summer. Satan himself wouldn't have sat in the grandstand for that race because it was so hot. 

But Fontana has drawn decent crowds for IndyCar in recent years. Just look back to 2013 when the race was the season finale in October. This looks a lot better than this. Fontana drew a nice crowd in 2013 because it wasn't in heat-stroke inducing conditions. It's not that people weren't interested in seeing IndyCar at Fontana, it's just hard to get people to sit in mid-90º F heat when the race could be watched from a couch in the breeze of air conditioning. 

It's disappointing that IndyCar took a race that was growing and was a decent season finale and moved it all around the calendar in hopes that ending the season by Labor Day weekend would be some monumental swing in the right direction for IndyCar's popularity. Fontana wanted to return to autumn in 2016 but the track and IndyCar couldn't come to an agreement. 

The 2016 season appeared to be a real chance for IndyCar growth. Road America was added. St. Petersburg will be a little earlier, Phoenix is making a red-zone drive and is right at the goal line of returning and a street race around Boston has been added. But with Road America likely canceling out the inevitable loss of New Orleans and Phoenix substituting for Fontana, it appears to be only a  +1 gain instead of a potential +3. Of course, that +1 could be knocked down to zero or worse if Milwaukee and/or Pocono do not return. 

It's a little disappointing losing NOLA because we never got to see how the track would have raced in dry conditions and it may have been a good venue and 2016 and 2017 might have seen growth in event and it could have become a nice little market for IndyCar. Losing Fontana is terrible. As said before, it was the race of 2015. It was apart of the Triple Crown. It was promising after it's return in 2012 and now it's gone. While the possible addition of Phoenix tentatively keeps the amount of IndyCar oval races at six, it would have been great for IndyCar to see that number increase to seven. The Triple Crown likely won't return in 2016 but there is always 2017 and hopefully Fontana and/or Michigan could return. 

I have to question Mark Miles a little bit. While Road America and Boston have returned and potentially Phoenix could return under his watch, the race of the year is disappearing and a few other venues could also be walking out the door. And the loss of Fontana makes it appear Boston will be the season finale on Labor Day weekend, just like Miles has always wanted. I just can't see Fontana returning or any race happening after Labor Day as long as Miles is in charge. The series has said it is looking to expanding the season passed Labor Day but Miles also said there would be international races at the beginning of the season and guess what has yet to happen? 

Miles appears so set in what he wants that he is willing to let a race go. Sure, the series said they couldn't fine the right start time for the race for the East Coast audience but I think that is a hurdle that could have been overcome. Fontana should have been run on a Saturday night with a NASCAR Xfinity Series race as a lead-in in 2016. See how easy that was? 

To me, I think Miles saw Fontana as a problem because it wanted to end after Labor Day and the start time excuse is just a way to kill the race, even though it was good for IndyCar. It's like if someone was overweight and decided the best way to lose weight were to have their kidneys, liver, spleen and colon removed. Miles may get to accomplish his goal but at what coast to IndyCar? 

While the 2016 IndyCar schedule could still see +1 growth, the potential of losing Milwaukee and/or Pocono still exists and even if Laguna Seca (which I don't think will happen but not because of IndyCar. Laguna Seca has their own problems to work out) or Homestead get added, it would be a net gain of zero, which seems to be all IndyCar can ever manage as IndyCar has yet to retain every race from one season to the next since the 2007 IRL season, which saw all 14 races from 2006 return as well as the additions of Iowa, Mid-Ohio and Belle Isle. Think about that. Not once since reunification has IndyCar been able to keep one calendar together for consecutive years.

And if 2016 sees a net loss from 2015, then I think will join Mr. Ricciardo in looking for some bricks and taking a plunge in the St. Lawrence River. We could jump in holding hands. Doesn't that sound beautiful?