Monday, June 13, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Fool's Gold

Rain and weepers delayed the IndyCar race at Texas Motor Speedway until August 27th. Drivers invaded the grandstand with hero cards in hand. Lewis Hamilton won again in Montreal and took another chunk out of Nico Rosberg's championship lead. There were first-time winners in Michigan and Moscow. A 52-year old man won a race. A new manufacture won on a world stage. Formula One teams have to pack up and fly halfway across the world. Two drivers are late to Le Mans. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Fool's Gold
The 100th Indianapolis 500 didn't just feature a who's who of drivers and personalities on the grid but also brought out key motorsports dignitaries, including FIA World Endurance Championship CEO Gerard Neveu and ACO CEO Pierre Fillon. The visit of two of the most important men for world sports car racing increased talks of a potential round of the World Endurance Championship taking place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the near future. However, I feel it would only be right to warn Mr. Neveu and Mr. Fillon. They may think they have just struck gold but likely haven't.

While the crowd of around 350,000 people looks spectacular, it is a mirage. The WEC thinks they have found its opening to the American fan base, despite having a capable home at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. The Austin event has not been growing at the rate the series would like and Circuit of the Americas has run into some financial difficult in the past year, most notable a reduction in spending that nearly cost it the United States Grand Prix.

The 6 Hours of the Circuit of the Americas has only been on the calendar for three years with the fourth edition scheduled for this September 17th. Last year's attendance over the two-day weekend was reportedly 58,400 spectators, an increase from 2014. For comparison, this year's WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps had a crowd of 56,000 people for race day. It doesn't appear Austin is that far off the other events on the WEC calendar but the track and the series appear not be seeing eye-to-eye with one another.

Austin might be shaky but the WEC should not expect their answer to be racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While 350,000 people show up for the Indianapolis 500, most other crowds at the Speedway are immediate dismissed as not good enough even when the turn out is respectable. The Brickyard 400 no longer draws a crowd that rivals the Indianapolis 500 but it still draws 80,000-100,000 and is one of the best-attended NASCAR races each season. Carb Day gets a massive crowd but the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, held just two weeks prior, may get 20,000-25,000 people. The MotoGP Indianapolis Grand Prix saw over 67,000 people show up for the race and over 145,000 people over the entire weekend last year and the race did not return in 2016. When Grand-Am and then IMSA raced at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the crowds were poor but to be fair the race was held on Friday afternoon of the NASCAR weekend.

If the WEC is expecting that just because 350,000 people showed up for the Indianapolis 500, they will easily get 50,000 on race day alone is foolish. Indianapolis maybe one of the arteries for motorsports in the United States but it isn't anything but a motorsports haven where the community shuts down anytime the Speedway has an event. The crowd at Austin might be less than spectacular but the crowd at Shanghai was dreadful at the start and it has continued to grow each year. Even Spa-Francorchamps has grown to over 50,000 in attendance from a merger beginning. Circuit of the Americas might have more problems than just attendance but it is still a new circuit. It is still becoming apart of the fabric of the community.

It has yet to set in that Austin, Texas is a destination for motorsports in the United States. Unlike Indianapolis, Daytona, Watkins Glen, Sebring and Long Beach, Austin doesn't have decades of motorsports history that draws people out. It takes time. Consider Petit Le Mans. At first, it was just another endurance race in the United States and now it arguably could be the largest attendance motorsports event in the state of Georgia. Think about that for a second. Georgia. The state that use to have two NASCAR races, including the season finale for the Cup series and is home to Bill Elliott. Do you really think in the early years of Petit Le Mans anyone imagine it would grow to what it is today? Austin may be struggling but it should not be abandoned. Growth takes time and the market is still getting use to having a major international motorsports facility in its backyard.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn't necessarily going to be the solution for the FIA WEC. Many events have gone to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway only to leave a few years later wondering what went wrong. Neveu and Fillon should be warned that a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway very well could have the same size crowd as Circuit of the Americas. Should the nugget of gold they think they have stumbled on turn out to be a nugget of disappointment, the only people they will have to blame are themselves.

Thoughts on Texas
Unfortunately, IndyCar will have to wait until August to complete its race at Texas Motor Speedway but I think it could be a positive for the race. First, the crowd looked really good on Saturday night but the weepers kept the race from starting. Sunday afternoon, with the threat of rain lingering, some made the trek out, others didn't. Weepers delayed the start again but 71 laps were complete.

IndyCar could have tried again today and raced in front of a couple hundred people and for a television audience around 100,000 but it decided to push it back and this allows many who bought a ticket and went on Saturday to return and could open the door for other people to purchase a ticket to watch the final 177 laps.

IndyCar isn't NASCAR where they race 38 out of 52 weeks and there is no room to reschedule a race and will occasionally have to wait until a Tuesday to complete a race if necessary. IndyCar has some room in case a race needs to be moved to a later date. Texas Motor Speedway gets a chance to promote this race again and the race now plays more heavily into the championship picture, as it is the antepenultimate round of the 2016 season. The final four races of the IndyCar season will now be run over five weeks. It will be a great way to build momentum heading to Sonoma, barring Simon Pagenaud doesn't clinch it at Texas or Watkins Glen, although Pagenaud clinching the title gives Eddie Gossage the chance to promote a potential coronation ceremony at his palace.

Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly will be allowed to restart the Texas race but both drivers will be significantly behind the eight-ball after their accident caused the final 30 laps run on Sunday to be behind the safety car. Newgarden suffered a fractured right clavicle and a small fractured in his right hand. Newgarden is already looking at surrendering a lot of points when the Texas race resumes but with two weeks until Road America, he might not be back in time and that would be a shame for him. I could see Ed Carpenter Racing just run one car until Newgarden returns considering how tight budgets are and how ECR has lost another car.

The amazing thing out of all this is, after the accident, IndyCar has jumped all-in to running aeroscreens for 2017. It's pretty progressive of IndyCar to basically say, "We're doing this." The FIA and Formula One seems to be hemming and hawing halo devices and aeroscreens. I figured IndyCar would just sit back and wait until the FIA figured something out but good on IndyCar for deciding what is best for the series. Hopefully we see IndyCar test one soon. I would hope the series would get into bed with Red Bull on this one and work in tandem. Yes, there will be plenty of people angry about this decision and saying it is the worst thing to ever happen to IndyCar and it will hurt racing and it will make the drivers less safe. People said all that about the domed skid and it all turned out to be bullshit. IndyCar will test aeroscreens and get driver feedback and all will be fine come the start of 2017.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Lewis Hamilton but did you know...

Joey Logano won the NASCAR Cup race at Michigan. Daniel Suárez became the first Mexican driver to win a Grand National Series race. William Byron won the Truck race at Texas.

Thierry Neuville won Rally d'Italia Sardegna, his first World Rally victory since the 2014 Rallye Deutschland.

Gabriele Tarquini and Nick Castsburg won the WTCC races from Moscow Raceway and sweeping the weekend for the home manufacture Lada.

Coming Up This Weekend
The 84th 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Formula One makes its maiden voyage to the coastal capital Baku, Azerbaijan for the European Grand Prix.
World Superbikes will be at Misano.
V8 Supercars head to Hidden Valley Raceway in Darwin.