Thursday, June 29, 2017

1000 Words: No Longer By The Lake

A milestone was reached this weekend though most didn't notice it because IndyCar was busy at Road America. While IndyCar celebrated its second year back at the famed road course and Scott Dixon's picked up his 41st IndyCar victory, Saturday marked a decade since a driver turn analyst reached a certain milestone at a track no longer on the schedule. It was the tenth anniversary of Paul Tracy's 31st and final victory, which came in the final Grand Prix of Cleveland.

It is kind of fitting that IndyCar was at Road America this past weekend while it marked a decade since Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport hosted an IndyCar race. Road America was just like Cleveland, a casualty of reunification, another long held wish for the fans, drivers and speed junkies and a part of IndyCar's identity that was missing. When IndyCar returned to Elkhart Lake last year, I wrote that the positivity after the event and the crowd size wouldn't have been there had IndyCar returned in 2009. Nine years made us appreciate what Road America was for IndyCar. If we had gotten it immediately we would have been spoiled brats, likely wasted it and the race would have fallen off the schedule after a few seasons because of a reason that would only make fans mad even if it made sense to those with skin in the game.

I went back and watched a few clips of previous Cleveland races and the entire 2007 race. It was better than I ever realized. Flat but fast, the Burke Lakefront Airport layout was unlike anything else in racing. Turn one was a bitch. It seemed like every race had someone running into the back of somebody else and a half-dozen cars facing the wrong direction after completing all off 500 feet of a 200-mile race. In 2000, CART tried to lay down cones on the inside line prior to turn one for the opening lap just to prevent drivers from diving up the inside. Sure, enough seven cars spun in turn one. Despite the inevitable sight of 20-someodd of the "best drivers in the world" failing to get through the first corner without somebody running over another car, we still loved Cleveland.

The beauty of the Cleveland circuit was each corner set up the corner that followed. It wasn't a race track that cut in and out on itself nor did it have five corners in the span of a half-mile just to have corners, which seems to be a theme of not only modern street courses but also the permanent courses that have been built in recent years. If you got through turn one at Cleveland with your nose still intact, you were flat on exit through turn two and had a 150-foot wide straightaway to dive up the inside of another car in turn three. However, get into the right-handed turn three a little too hot and the car you thought you had passed will get back by you in the left-hander that immediately followed. However, if a car got turn four wrong, it was a sitting duck on the straightaway down to turns five and six, a left-right section that mirror turns three and four. Turns seven and eight, two right-handers, prepared the cars for the long penultimate straightaway and turns nine and ten, another right-left section before the main straightaway and the start of another lap of the madness.

It is a simple layout really and why the Hermann Tilkes and Tony Cotmans of the world haven't copied it for every track they design from now until the day they die is unfathomable. Long straightaways to build up speed and wide enough for five-wide racing, quick corners in succession that punishes the slightest mistakes but reward the gutsiest and smoothest of the daredevils with one hard braking zone is the recipe for a perfect race track. And we haven't even the mentioned the twist of a pit exit where it was advantageous to be exiting the pit lane instead of on the race track. Because of how long the pit lane was cars would go past turn one into a right-handed bend and when a car was lined back up to the race track the driver could slam on the throttle and start gaining speed a couple hundred feet before cars exiting turn one could get back on the gas. When it appeared a car had leapfrogged another during a pit cycle the car exiting the pit lane would retake the position before the fast right-handed turn two.

I am resigned in the fact that Cleveland will never return to the IndyCar schedule. I will admit the one time I had to make a connection in Cleveland, I got way too excited to fly by Burke Lakefront Airport and that was five years ago. You have to hold out some hope because Road America did return but Road America remained operational in the interim between IndyCar races. It kept sports cars and it added a NASCAR date. The track was making money. Cleveland has been dormant for ten years now. Mike Lanigan, who promoted the Cleveland race, revived Houston instead in 2013. How did that work out? Nothing against Lanigan and Houston but it is difficult to run any race successfully in 2017 let alone revive a race back to the lofty level it once held. IndyCar has found a way to move on without Cleveland and that is painful to admit. The schedule is solid as it is and the summer is already booked. We are approaching fourth of July weekend, a traditional date for the Grand Prix of Cleveland and if it were to return to the holiday weekend it would become the second race in a four consecutive week stretch of racing. Teams just had a stretch of five consecutive weeks at a race track from May into June. There are two free weekends in August but Mid-Ohio precedes those off weekends and I am not sure Mid-Ohio or Cleveland would be happy being on consecutive weekends or being two weeks apart.

By the way, the Grand Prix of Cleveland website is still up and I must say, damn! Look at those prices for the 2008 race. A three-day grandstand ticket cost $85. A three-day pit pass cost $35 for an adult and $20 for a child. Three-day infield parking cost $25. I can't find what is included in the three-day super ticket but it is only $100. A grandstand ticket for Sunday only costs $35. Those are amazing deals. No wonder why this race was able to be successful ever after the split. No race on the schedule today is nearly that fan-friendly with prices.

Cleveland's return to the IndyCar schedule seems unlikely but you never know what tomorrow may bring and if it brings back Cleveland and with those 2008 prices I think it would make the return to Road America look like a family picnic in terms of crowd size.