Monday, June 20, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Same State, Different Buzz

France was a busy place where it appeared attrition wouldn't decide the 24 Hours of Le Mans and then it did. There was an American driver in three of the four Le Mans class winners. Curbs caused headaches at Azerbaijan. Two Brits could have been covered by a blanket in Italy. The NASCAR Cup Series took off but the other two national touring divisions rendezvous in Iowa. An Indianapolis 500 winner won a race that surpasses his Indianapolis 500 victory, according to Larry McReynolds. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Same State, Different Buzz
IndyCar's long awaited return to Road America comes this weekend, nearly nine years after S├ębastien Bourdais won the 2007 Champ Car race at the famed four-mile road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. While IndyCar returns to one of the most historic road courses in North America, the series has been in Wisconsin for almost all of the last decade. Expect for 2010, IndyCar had been racing in the state of Wisconsin at the Milwaukee Mile.

The Milwaukee Mile's IndyCar history is tremendous from the days of A.J. Foyt vs. Jimmy Clark to Mike Mosley winning as a promoter's option to Ryan Hunter-Reay leading all 250 laps on his way to victory. After the one-year hiatus, IndyCar returned to the Milwaukee Mile but could never reignite the spark that was there in 2009. The race jumped from date-to-date throughout June, July and August and the crowd grew a little bit from 2011 but it wasn't substantial. The racing was really good but the Milwaukee Mile couldn't cement itself into the IndyCar schedule.

There has been nothing but positive news from Road America. Camping sites sold old, the drivers are in their glory and can't wait until the first official session. Many think a track record will be set and all expectations are for an event that will rival the buzz and crowds of Long Beach, Mid-Ohio and Barber.

However, what has changed in a year? Is the crowd at Road America really going to be that much greater than that of Milwaukee? If so, what did IndyCar and Milwaukee promoters do wrong for five years? How could a track an hour outside of Milwaukee do what the track in the city's backyard failed to do?

We talk about promotion a lot when it comes to IndyCar and more notable the perceived lack of promotion. Not all of IndyCar's shortcoming and the shortcomings of IndyCar events are due to promotion. The races could be promoted the exact same amount and Road America ended up with a much larger crowd. The question then isn't promotion but the ability to pinpoint the target demographics. I don't know how to quantify Road America's promotion efforts and compare it to what was done by Milwaukee promoters for five years but it could simply come down to one group knowing the market better than the other.

The difference also can't conceivably be that road course racing is that much more popular than oval racing. IndyCar oval attendance isn't at NASCAR level but the common belief is that oval racing is king in the United States, regardless of what series is competing. Nothing suggests that ovals are now looked down upon in the American motorsports landscape. However, the one advantage road and street course races have over ovals is the nearly non-stop schedule of events for three days while ovals schedules have fewer series and longer gaps between sessions.

No offense to Pirelli World Challenge and the Road to Indy series but I doubt their presence on the bill is the difference between an event making or breaking it on the IndyCar schedule (consider that both Indy Lights and Pro Mazda raced at Milwaukee) but support series surely help draw people to the track. In 2016, where time is more precious than ever and more options vying for the attention of people, if people are going out to an event, they need to be kept busy. People aren't going to head to a race track to see two hours of actions and three hours of empty race track. They need something to fill the time, regardless of that being another racing series or another feature at the racetrack whether that is carnival rides or a concert.

Other than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, all other ovals on the IndyCar schedule are in same boat Milwaukee was in for five years. Texas and Pocono feature only IndyCar on race day. Iowa has Pro Mazda and Indy Lights and ARCA the day before but Iowa has bounced around on the schedule the last few years between June and July and between being a Saturday night race and a Sunday race. Phoenix is back on the IndyCar scene and while year one seemed to go over well, there were certain things that need to be improved on, including nearly four hours between the end of the Indy Lights race and the start of the IndyCar race.

As much as IndyCar oval racing is celebrated, the series and oval promoters needs to reevaluate drawing fans to the track, whether that means making sure more Road to Indy series are present or bringing in Stadium Super Trucks or other series or recreating the Snake Pit at each venue. Ovals need to find a way to replicate the buzz that road and street courses, even within the same states, are able to accomplish.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about what happened at Le Mans but did you know...

Nico Rosberg won the European Grand Prix from Baku, Azerbaijan.

Jonathan Rea won both World Superbike races from Misano. Kenan Sofuoglu won the World Supersport race, his fourth victory in eight races.

Michael Caruso won his second career V8 Supercars race on Saturday at Hidden Valley Raceway in Darwin, Australia; nearly seven years after Caruso's first victory came at Hidden Valley Raceway. Shane Van Gisbergen won the Sunday race.

Antonio Giovinazzi swept the GP2 races from Baku. Giovinazzi is the first driver to sweep a GP2 weekend since fellow Italian Davide Valsecchi did it at Bahrain in 2012.

Sam Hornish, Jr. won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Iowa. William Byron won his second consecutive Truck Series race.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar returns to Road America. All Road to Indy series and Pirelli World Challenge join IndyCar.
MotoGP makes history and runs the Dutch TT on a Sunday.
DTM's lone street race occurs at the Norisring.
NASCAR heads to its first road course of the season in Sonoma.
After 24 Hours of Le Mans, Blancpain Endurance Series will run 1000km at Circuit Paul Ricard.
The World Touring Car Championship will be in Portugal.