Monday, April 1, 2024

Musings From the Weekend: Owning Your Ground

Here is a rundown of what got me thinking...

The FIA disqualified the #2 Cadillac over three weeks after the Qatar 1812km. AF Corse was fined for stashing some engineers amongst its marketing team. Sebastian Vettel tested a Porsche. Adrian Newey has an offer from Aston Martin. Supercross had a potentially title-turning tilt in St. Louis. Liberty Media has purchased MotoGP, but that conversation must wait until another day. It rained at Richmond, but that did not stop NASCAR from competing on grooved tires, and Denny Hamlin beat your favorite driver. NASCAR wasn't also making news in Richmond. It was making news in Long Beach, but status quo will remain for the foreseeable future, and that has me thinking.

Owning Your Ground
The never-ending existential crisis of 2024 for IndyCar continued this week when reports came out NASCAR was investigating purchasing promotional ownership of the Grand Prix of Long Beach. With Kevin Kalkhoven's passing in 2022, half of Long Beach's ownership belonged to the Kalkhoven family's estate, and the family was looking to sell.

With NASCAR no longer racing at Fontana since the track has been sold and redeveloped, and the Clash exhibition event held the past three years at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum having an uncertain future in terms of location, NASCAR might need another venue to continue running in Southern California. Long Beach would solve nine-tenths of the battle. 

An existing race with a half-century of history, Long Beach would be plug-and-play for NASCAR. The race already has the existing infrastructure to put on a race. They know where to place the grandstands, park the haulers and where ingress and egress points would be for spectators coming to the event. The only change would be a different series competing, not the most difficult change in the world. 

NASCAR already has the following in Southern California and Long Beach has a crowd of its own. Long Beach will always have a group that will show up no matter what. There is also an audience that has no interest in attending because it is not NASCAR. Add NASCAR, and those people will be sitting along Shoreline Drive next to Long Beach lifers that is there to enjoy the atmosphere no matter what is racing. It is really a scenario that would have no loss. Long Beach would not suffer if NASCAR became the headline event. IndyCar would. 

After a tense few days, crisis was averted in IndyCar circles as Gerry Forsythe, former team owner and the man responsible for owning the other half of the Long Beach race, purchased the remaining 50% from the Kalkhoven family, giving Forsythe full control of the famed street race. Forsythe made it clear what his intentions were in the announcement of his takeover saying it was an "IndyCar event, and it will be into the future."

Things have settled down, but in what has been a contentious period for IndyCar, this scare will not be forgotten for some time, and it will lead to conversations continuing that have already been taking place. One of IndyCar's few stalwart events was on the verge of potentially falling off the calendar. No matter how you try to square it, it would have been a significant blow to the series at a time where it has been entirely absorbing punches and not throwing many back. 

Pandemic aside, Long Beach is the second longest tenured race on the IndyCar schedule. Other than 2020, it has hosted America's top open-wheel series since 1984. Other than the Indianapolis 500, no other event has been on the calendar continuously since the 20th century. 

Remember, Toronto didn't take place in 2008 during reunification. Every other historical place has come and gone. Road America was gone for nearly a decade. Portland was gone for a decade. Laguna Seca was gone for a decade and a half, and Gateway was gone for nearly the same period of time. Mid-Ohio and Milwaukee each had their periods of absent. Detroit is on its third stint on the calendar, but has found new life since returning in 2012 at Belle Isle and has since moved back downtown. The latest addition of what is old is new will be Nashville Superspeedway, returning to host the finale, its first IndyCar race since 2008 after the downtown Nashville street race fell through due to logistical concerns. 

There are plenty of new continuous events. St. Petersburg has been around for 20 years. Barber only missed the 2020 season since its first race in 2010. Iowa had one missed year. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis has been a good start to the month of May since 2014. While new is good, Long Beach has been the only event outside Indianapolis that IndyCar could count on for 40 years. It is the only other event that draws a staggering crowd when in comparison with the rest of the calendar outside of the Indianapolis 500. 

Outrage was plentiful when it appeared IndyCar was in trouble with Long Beach, wondering how it could come to this and how the series could allow this to possibly happen. There is one problem with that. IndyCar doesn't own Long Beach. IndyCar doesn't own all of its events. Most of the schedule are independently promoted races that can choose any series to throw its support behind. When Formula One was reportedly interested in a Long Beach return not long ago, the Long Beach organizers could have decided to welcome Formula One back and left IndyCar behind. These are IndyCar races... for now. If the promoter thinks another series would be better for business, it can move on. 

This is how it has been in IndyCar for its entirety. I would say under Penske ownership this is the most the calendar has been series-owned and operated events ever in IndyCar history. Consider that the series owns the Indianapolis 500, plus the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, then there is Detroit, which was a Penske event before it purchased the series. Then you have Iowa, which has been series-operated since being revived in 2022, and starting in 2024, Milwaukee will be a series-run event. That is five of 15 race weekends, a third of the schedule. 

Green Savoree Promotions has been taking care of a number of IndyCar races for over a decade. It currently is responsible for St. Petersburg, Mid-Ohio, Toronto and Portland. Then there are the entirely independent weekends of Long Beach, Barber Motorsports Park, Road America, Laguna Seca, Gateway and Nashville. 

Entire control of the series' event is not in IndyCar's plans, nor is that likely what Green Savoree and some of the other tracks would like, but it is worth considering if this is the best thing for IndyCar protection its own future. In its present form, IndyCar doesn't have the bandwidth to promote 15 race weekends, but it might be the safest way to make sure events like Long Beach stick around. 

IndyCar could have purchased the 50% share of Long Beach the Kalkhoven family put on the table. It sounds like the series was in conversation before Forsythe purchased it. Now it will have to wait or offer Forsythe of a pile of money he cannot refuse. 

We might be coming around back to Long Beach's future in the not-so-distant future. Gerry Forsythe is 82 years old. IndyCar's two most famous races are controlled by an 82-year-old and an 87-year-old. What does that say about future stability? We are likely going to be having these same conversations again at some point in the next decade, possibly even in the next five years. 

It feels like everything IndyCar must do at the moment is a seismic change from what it is doing currently. Charter system. Television contracts. Engine and chassis regulations. Throw in scheduling. Let's face it, IndyCar isn't strong enough to change everything all at once. Consolidating control of every race into the series' hand and taking it away from independent organizers is much easier said than done. 

As much as we want IndyCar to hold all the chips to guarantee these races remain on the schedule, it isn't likely, but it is something the series must consider, at least with Long Beach. American open-wheel racing has spent 40 decades at Long Beach. This marriage has gone on too long for a divorce. The series must know this and bringing Long Beach under the IndyCar's control might be the only way to ensure the two remain together long into the future.

The best way to ensure its space on the American motorsports landscape, IndyCar must start claiming its own ground, otherwise it will be squeezed out of pretty much everywhere but Speedway, Indiana.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Denny Hamlin, but did you know...

Eli Tomac swept the Triple Crown races from St. Louis to take the round victory, the 52nd of his Supercross career and it was his 100th podium finish. Levi Kitchen swept the 250cc Triple Crown races to win the round as well.

Chandler Smith won the NASCAR Grand National Series race, his second of the season.

Maximilian Günther won the Tokyo ePrix. 

Kalle Rovanperä won the Safari Rally Kenya.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One makes a spring trip to Suzuka.
NASCAR remains in Virginia, but heads south to Martinsville.
The GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup opens with a 500-kilometer race at Circuit Paul Ricard.
The GT World Challenge America opens with a round at Sonoma.