Monday, July 9, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: Let's Talk Ovals

IndyCar had a race with 955 passes at Iowa and James Hinchcliffe took the victory on a day where Josef Newgarden wiped the floor with everyone for an hour and a half. We have reached the point of the IndyCar season where drivers are being mathematically eliminated from the championship. The British Grand Prix gave us the Mercedes vs. Ferrari battle we have been waiting for. A notable last name won at Silverstone. IMSA had another great battle in Canada. You know who won the World Superbike races as that series now takes over two months off before its final four rounds. There was a first time winner in the NASCAR Cup series. Something happened in Japan for the first time in 32 years. Craig Lowndes announced his retirement from full-time Supercars competition. Santino Ferrucci may have ended his own career. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Let's Talk Ovals
In pondering the 2019 IndyCar schedule it is hard to avoid the topic of ovals and IndyCar's long drawn struggle to attract more oval races and more importantly keep them.

In 2011, the original IndyCar schedule had 17 venues, eight of which were ovals and then earthquake damage forced the Motegi round to be run on the road course instead of the 1.5-mile oval. Since the start of the DW12-era no schedule has had more than six ovals and every time a breakthrough appears to be coming another setback occurs. In 2015, IndyCar had six ovals and when Phoenix was about to enter Fontana and Milwaukee left. After another year at five ovals, the schedule was back up to six ovals for 2017 when Gateway returned and it remained consistent for 2018 but with Phoenix on the way outs IndyCar is on the verge of another step back.

The good news is Homestead quickly emerged as a possible filler for the loss of Phoenix but there is a Band-Aid feeling to Homestead: A temporary fix to a greater issue.

IndyCar isn't new to Homestead. CART and the IRL went there from 1996 to 2010 and like all venues in the 1990s there was a promising start and a decline coinciding with reunification. It has been difficult for IndyCar to gain traction in certain parts of the country. Its heart is in the Midwest and that is fine. You have to be rooted somewhere and its Mecca of Indianapolis is surrounded by venues such as Belle Isle, Road America, Mid-Ohio and Gateway. Long Beach has long been the western capital for IndyCar and while since the turn of the Millennium two southern venues of St. Petersburg and Barber have become favorite spring stops other venues have struggled to spark.

Last year, Gateway returned and it was a hit immediately. Close to 40,000 people attended the first race at the 1.25-mile oval since 2003. Gateway isn't one of the bigger ovals. It isn't apart of the mega-ownership groups of International Speedway Corporation or Speedway Motorsports, Inc. It is an independent track owned by a former driver turned real estate developed based in the area. It didn't have a multi-million dollar renovation. It is nothing special but it put on a heck of an event because the track knew its community, it knew how to draw people out and for the first time in a long time IndyCar appears to have found a place where it is wanted.

Does the Homestead-Miami-area want IndyCar? Does anywhere want IndyCar? IndyCar can go to all these markets but if nobody cares if IndyCar is there then the race is likely going to fail.

There are plenty of ovals in this country and we are in an odd period where it seems 95% of them are struggling. Our expectations have to change. NASCAR races aren't drawing 100,000 people on a weekly basis. Some integral events to NASCAR are drawing closer to NFL size crowds. We can't expect IndyCar oval races, which has been a fraction of NASCAR attendance from the start, to draw 100,000 people but where can IndyCar draw a respectable crowd? Instead of going to a venue and hoping it works IndyCar needs has to be strategic.

Motorsports might not be as popular as it once was in this country but there are race fans in this country. You just have to find them and make them feel wanted. There was a missed opportunity this year for IndyCar with New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Loudon was one of the ovals on the 2011 schedule and it disappeared after one year when the crowd wasn't as great as expected but the track lost a NASCAR race this year and it left an opening at the end of summer and early autumn. It might not have been as big of a crowd as it once was but that Loudon NASCAR race probably still drew 75,000 people and they all lost a race. It might not have worked in 2011 but the conditions have changed and IndyCar can give the New England-area a major event to make up for one lost. It could be one place where the fan base feels a bit of neglect after having two NASCAR races for 21 years. IndyCar should have stepped up and filled that late-September date. There are race fans there. IndyCar needs to connect with them.

Barber Motorsports Park has become a seminal spring event for IndyCar and ten years ago I doubt anyone would have guessed a race in Alabama would be so well supported but it is because there are race fans in the South. Darlington lost a NASCAR race just over a decade ago after having a spring race for over 50 years. NASCAR is still beloved at Darlington and the Southern 500 being moved to its rightful place Labor Day weekend was met with great enthusiasm but it is an underserved market.

If IndyCar can work in Alabama why couldn't it work in South Carolina? I don't know if the racing would work at Darlington but it would be different and IndyCar gets viewers in the Carolinas. We cannot let preconceived notions take over. It might not be the stereotypical IndyCar market but the South has race fans, not just NASCAR fans and the biggest way to get people interest is show interest in the market. If you embrace the fans that exist they will show the love back.

I understand why drivers do promotional events in cities and throw out first pitches at Major League Baseball games and sign autographs at local grocery stores, hardware stores and so on but there are many people that have been left behind at local short tracks across the country. That first pitch at Wrigley Field is nice but most people forget who threw out the first pitch by the time the first batter has stepped into the batter's box.

Where drivers will be received with a warm welcome is a racetrack. Loudon could work but while you think first pitch at Fenway Park is what will promote the race the actual answer might be going to a modified race and talking racing with race fans. The same is true in the South. Take two or three drivers to a late model stock car race and talk racing. Show you are interested. And maybe have the drivers compete now and then. Tony Stewart was a fan favorite because he kept going back to where he started. While he made millions he didn't forget those he met along the way.

After a race like yesterday's, maybe IndyCar needs more short tracks and maybe it needs to go to forgotten short tracks. Richmond would be great and not too long ago Baltimore drew 60,000 people so there is a fan base in the Mid-Atlantic area. Memphis has a short track, a damn good 3/4-mile oval and the Nashville Fairgrounds needs a little love and safer barriers but IndyCar would be very popular if it went to once was a gem. Maybe Indianapolis Raceway Park isn't too small and maybe that is where the season finale should be and it could be run the Saturday night of Brickyard weekend.

IndyCar's ties to American short track racing have been frayed for 30 years and let's not pretend that reconnecting is the answer that will turn every oval race into a sea of 100,000 people with two million watching on television but the little things that should be done are connecting with the local tracks and let them know they aren't forgotten. If you remember the people they will remember you back.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about James Hinchcliffe but did you know...

Patricio O'Ward won the Indy Lights race from Iowa, his fourth victory of the season.

Sebastian Vettel won the British Grand Prix, his first victory in the event since 2009.

Alexander Albon and Maximilian G√ľnther split the Formula Two races at Silverstone. Anthonie Hubert and Pedro Piquet split the GP3 races.

Erik Jones won the NASCAR Cup race at Daytona, his career victory. Kyle Larson won the Grand National Series race.

The #54 CORE Autosport Oreca-Gibson of Colin Braun and Jon Bennett won the IMSA race at Mosport. The #67 Ford GT of Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe won in GTLM. The #33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG of Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating won in GTD.

Jamie Whincup and Shane van Gisbergen split the Supercars races at Townsville.

Jonathan Rea swept the World Superbike races at Misano. Federico Caricasulo won the World Supersport race.

Nick Cassidy won the Super Formula race at Fuji, his first career victory and the first victory for a New Zealander in the series since Mike Thackwell won at Fuji on August 10, 1986.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar makes it one trip to Canada and specifically the streets of Toronto.
All three Road to Indy series join IndyCar in Toronto.
MotoGP has to get a race in hours prior to the World Cup Final at the Sachsenring.
The Formula E season ends in Brooklyn.
Portland hosts its first major motorsports series in over a decade with Pirelli World Challenge heading to Oregon.
NASCAR has another night race at Kentucky.
The Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters will be near the beaches in Zandvoort.