Monday, July 26, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: Two Series, A Similar Problem

The Brits swept the London Formula E round with Jake Dennis winning race one and Alex Lynn taking race two. Yamaha riders are not getting along. IndyCar killed a lot of squirrels at Laguna Seca. Hélio Castroneves is returning to IndyCar full-time in 2022, but Jack Harvey will not be his teammate. MotoGP will not be going to Thailand. Dani Pedrosa will make a wild card appearance at the Red Bull Ring for KTM. Hendrick Motorsports had an engine mix up. Monza confirmed it will host sprint qualifying. Toyota has reliability concerns ahead of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Two Series, A Similar Problem
It is startling that the two major series in the world with an oval racing identity have an oval problem. Albeit these problems are on different ends of the spectrum. IndyCar lacks oval races. NASCAR is not racing at enough of the right kind of ovals. 

IndyCar's problem has existed for a decade and 2021 hit a new low, with only three oval tracks representing four races on the schedule. The series has always been coy about the number of ovals. For most of the DW12-era, IndyCar has lived with five or six oval races, and depending on how you looked at the deck of cards, ovals were an equal proportion to road and street courses. At one point, depending how you looked at it, ovals were on top with six races compared to five road courses and five street courses. 

The series could live with this split even though it could have probably benefitted from an additional two or three ovals. With the series down to three oval tracks in 2021, IndyCar is now two or three ovals away from being two or three ovals away and throughout this season IndyCar management has been more vocal than previous administrations about increasing that total iin the near future. 

There are two obvious options that could bolster IndyCar's oval total, and both were recently on the calendar: Iowa and Richmond. 

Iowa hosted races from 2007 through 2020, but was dropped for the 2021 season as the NASCAR-owned track goes through uncertain times. Richmond was initially on the 2020 schedule, its first IndyCar date since 2008, but the pandemic caused the race to be removed from the schedule. When the 2021 calendar came out, Richmond again was not included. 

Over the first half of this year, there has been a lot of talk about an Iowa revival for 2022. Richmond has not been getting the same kind of buzz, but it does feel like a possible venue. 

Again, Iowa and Richmond only get IndyCar back to a sufficient level, and the series would still be two or three ovals away from comfort. While there are plenty of ovals out there, IndyCar's biggest issue becomes some of its old stomping grounds are no longer functional. 

Unfortunately, Milwaukee is not a viable option. Chicagoland and Kentucky are two tracks in IndyCar's backyard and both have been shuttered after they each lost NASCAR Cup Series races this year. Neither is officially closed, but neither NASCAR nor Speedway Motorsports Inc. has any plans to use them as racetracks. Fontana is likely going to be converted into a half-mile oval, meaning the two-mile's high banks will be bulldozed. Roger Penske has already ruled out a possible race at Michigan. 

Those are five venues with notable IndyCar history and none of them are on the table for 2022 or beyond. IndyCar's choices are few and there aren't that many venues knocking on the door. I guess Pocono could be an option. It was interested in keeping IndyCar beyond the 2019 season but the two parties could not agree on terms. But IndyCar needs more than one more oval. It is hard to see what else is a realistic option. 

One place where IndyCar could find some oval help is with NASCAR. The two series will have another companion weekend this year on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, but the truth is IndyCar doesn't need a second road course race on the IMS road course. If IndyCar is going to run a companion weekend anywhere, it needs to be on an oval. IndyCar cannot be too choosy, but it needs to accept a Saturday evening or Saturday night race on a NASCAR weekend or it could be a lead-in race starting at noon on Sunday. We have already seen IndyCar benefit from being the lead-in to a NASCAR Cup race. Why not just do it at the same track? 

But NASCAR's ovals might not mesh with IndyCar. IndyCar has its own schedule and this companion oval weekend could only work when NBC takes over the NASCAR schedule. Nashville conflicted with IndyCar at Road America. NASCAR already has a doubleheader at Pocono and I am not sure where IndyCar could fit. Atlanta was supposed to clash with the Toronto IndyCar race, but with Atlanta about to reconfigure the track might no longer be suitable for IndyCar. IndyCar is not running Daytona. 

With those ovals out of the question, that leaves Loudon and Michigan as the ovals within the NASCAR regular season for IndyCar to join, and Roger Penske already ruled out Michigan, which is foolish by the way. Penske runs the joint but to completely rule out a racetrack, one that is arguably in IndyCar territory, is foolish, even if IndyCar already runs at Belle Isle and that is a Penske promoted event. 

Loudon would not be a bad option. IndyCar had a good race there in 2011, but the infamous finish spoiled that show, and we have yet to see how the DW12 would race there. I think it would be a good show and NASCAR did not put down PJ1 for its most recent race weekend there. Saturday could be a modified/NASCAR Grand National Series doubleheader and Sunday could be an IndyCar/NASCAR Cup doubleheader with a 225-lap IndyCar race ahead of the 301-lap Cup race later in the afternoon. 

But that is only one oval, and if Iowa returned to its familiar date, it would actually clash with Loudon. Let's not forget Loudon battled through rain on Sunday. One rainstorm spoils any IndyCar/NASCAR companion weekend at an oval.  

There are a lot of moving pieces in the way of IndyCar's oval search, and it is more than NASCAR as well. Richmond was supposed to be the last week of June in 2020. If Richmond were to be the last week of June in 2022 and Iowa were to return to its mid-July date, IndyCar would be looking at five consecutive weekends with races as Mid-Ohio moved to Independence Day weekend from early August this year. Richmond or Iowa could move to early August, but August has brutal weather in Richmond, and the Knoxville Nationals are in early August, which wouldn't work for an Iowa IndyCar event. 

The problem evolves from IndyCar having an oval problem to IndyCar having a timing issue. IndyCar moved races around before and for worse. Kentucky moved from August to Labor Day weekend to October and then it died. Fontana moved from mid-September to mid-October to late-August to the end of June and then it died. IndyCar's oval issue is as much its own fault as it is the tracks themselves. How does the series fit in these races and keep its existing events healthy while also making sure the teams are not run ragged? 


On the flip side, NASCAR has all the ovals in the world and yet it still doesn't have the right ones. 

After a few underwhelming races on ovals, and off the back of the announced Atlanta reconfiguration, those in NASCAR circles are re-evaluating what its schedule looks like and it has always been planning a schedule shakeup in 2022. While the Cup Series had seven road course events on the 2021 calendar, short tracks are what a great majority of fans, teams and drivers want. 

Meanwhile, the Superstar Racing Experience recently finished its season and SRX ran six short track races, two on dirt, but four on pavement from Stafford to Indianapolis Raceway Park to Slinger Speedway with the Nashville Fairgrounds hosting the finale. 

Efforts are ongoing to have the NASCAR Cup Series return to the Nashville Fairgrounds, but as it stands none of those four SRX paved ovals could host a NASCAR Cup race. Perhaps IRP could, but that is it. 

Like IndyCar with timing, NASCAR needs the infrastructure for its events. I am not talking about suites and fancy garages, I am just talking about space, a suitable pit lane and SAFER Barriers. As much of a wet dream it might be for the NASCAR Cup Series to run at Slinger, Slinger is not big enough. There are existing short tracks that are big enough for a NASCAR Cup Series event. 

For starters, any racetrack that has hosted NASCAR Grand National Series or Truck race is suitable for a Cup race. That means Iowa is suitable, and the Cup Series could make IRP work and even a forgotten track like the 3/4-mile Memphis Motorsports Park could host a race. Gateway isn't a short track per se, but it would be a different venue for the NASCAR Cup Series. Those tracks could host a Cup race tomorrow, but NASCAR's choice is to convert Fontana into a half-mile, spend tens of millions of dollars and wait two years to add a short track race. 

NASCAR could have eight or nine true short track races each year, which might not sound like much, but when you look at NASCAR's history, it is in line with past schedule proportions. 

In NASCAR's modern-era, only one season were short tracks (less than a mile in length) more than a third of the races. The last time short tracks were at least a quarter of the Cup schedule was in 1996. The current balance is a little too low with only five paved short track races, plus the Bristol dirt race, which was on a half-mile track, but NASCAR should let go of trying to be everything for everyone. The NASCAR dirt races are not good. It is ok if NASCAR is on dirt. Regular Bristol is better. 

If Bristol has two paved events, plus once Fontana is converted that track could get two races (goodbye to Kansas' second race), and if Iowa is added, we would be looking at nine short track races, exactly a quarter of the schedule. That is a better balance, but NASCAR has to now do it. Too many times NASCAR is disconnected from its needs. No one asked for a second Atlanta race and yet it happened this year. Darlington can live with a second date, but Atlanta? Come on! 

IndyCar and NASCAR are the only major series with oval woven into their fabric and both are somehow suffering an identity crisis. The United States is the only oval predominant country and yet those events are struggling the most. IndyCar and NASCAR both have successful races at Road America, and yet both had oval events in nearby major metropolitan area flunk out. Why Road America can draw a crowd but Milwaukee and Chicagoland couldn't is a mystery. Why over 50,000 people will drive an hour out of the way to go to Road America but Milwaukee couldn't draw better than 15,000 people and Chicagoland dipped substantially over recent years is almost inexplicable, and yet it happened.

North America's top two series have soul searching in their future. Only time will tell if they find an answer to their oval problems. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Jake Dennis and Alex Lynn, but did you know...

Jonathan Rea swept the World Superbike races from Assen and retook the championship lead. Dominique Aegerter swept the World Supersport races and Aegerter has won five consecutive races.

Philip Ellis and Maximilian Götz split the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters races from the Lausitzring. 

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One will head into the summer break after a round in Hungary.
The first round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge season will be the Spa 24 Hours.