Will it play in Peoria?

Posted by Iannucci | 6/10/2008 | 12 comments »
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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”George Santayana

Earlier this week our good buddy pressdog put together another piece of satirical brilliance discussing how the IndyCar series is adding more road and street courses called “IRL ‘Pretty Sure’ it can sell customers what they don’t want.” The send-up was built around a quote by Texas Motor Speedway’s Eddie Gossage, who said the IRL should have “80% ovals” to truly succeed”, which even your humble IRL fan will admit is probably a high number. Still, Eddie is in the business of selling tickets and he knows events like his are generally more viable than those involving right turns.

I know, I’m fanning some flames here – so be it. But the notorious flame-fanner known as Robin has joined this conversation by saying the IRL should get rid of most ovals that aren’t short tracks. Not that you would expect the man who keeps calling big oval tracks “deathtraps” to speak any differently.

With a couple exceptions, open-wheel racing and ovals no longer mesh. Sure, it's still some of the best racing on this planet and it's much better to watch on television, but it's usually a big financial loser. That's why George has had to abandon the IRL's all-oval mantra and adopt one of CART's few good ideas -- a blend of road courses, street circuits and ovals.

Since the split in 1996, Atlanta, Charlotte, Colorado Springs, Dover, Fontana, Las Vegas, Loudon, St. Louis, Michigan, Nazareth, Orlando and Phoenix have thrown in the towel for various reasons.

And, we're reporting right here that you can add Homestead and Nashville to that list, because neither will be back on the 2009 IRL schedule.

(MORE from SpeedTV)
Nice list. Here are a few others that have “thrown in the towel for various reasons”: Portland, Road America, Laguna Seca, as well as street races scheduled for San Jose, Houston, Vancouver, Denver, Miami, and (gasp!) Phoenix. Using Robin’s logic we can all conclude that open-wheel and road racing, or open-wheel and street racing no longer mesh. Sure it’s some of the most boring racing on the planet, and it’s much worse on TV, but it’s nearly always a big financial loser.

Seriously, Toronto and Edmonton were just added as losers of $2 million and $1 million per event respectively while “open-wheel racing and ovals no longer mesh”. Gimme a break.

Pop quiz: the biggest open-wheel race on the planet is held at what kind of track? Here’s a hint: it has four turns. Now obviously that doesn’t mean all ovals will work for the IRL, but when places like Texas continue to show the kind of lead changes and passing (not to mention attendance) that most road courses can never have it’s incredible to think this argument for MORE twisties comes this week.

(And not to get off point here, but and quite frankly you can go ahead and get rid of Nashville this year and most folks wouldn’t be terribly upset. I know it’s a big event for Firestone, but that’s a single-lane oval and a total snooze of a race. Sorry, Tennessee.)

What a businessman like Eddie understands and a guy like Robin does not is that we can all have our personal preferences in our favorite types of tracks, but America as a nation has shown time and again to have very little interest in watching road and street racing. Why? My guess is it's because on ovals the excitement is right in front of the viewer. "Here we are now, entertain us." There go the cars, loud, fast, and passing each other constantly. The drama is evident no matter what you know about the drivers or the cars, and it’s so thrilling even your grandmother can enjoy it.

Compare this kind of racing with road courses, which are challenging not only for the drivers but also for the common spectator because by contrast there is a lot less passing. I don’t care how beautiful your circuit is, people aren’t going to line up by the thousands year in and year out and pay good money to watch a few hours of pit stop competitions. That’s a $10 Carb Day contest, not an actual race.

(Again with an aside, but laps clicking by without passing is boring on super speedways as well. It’s just a lot less likely to happen, except of course at Nashville.)

Now take the road course concept a step further with street courses. Not only do we have the passing-free environment of road racing, but there’s now the added touch of only being able to see one or two turns of the entire track. Yee haw. Because of this challenge, street race promoters have to work overtime to get people interested in watching, adding everything from grid girls to celebrity races. As a red-blodded American guy I can say I have no issues with grid girls, but notice they don’t have them at places like Indy. There they can trot out Jim Nabors to sing about “new-mown hay” and people go nuts.

The point being that although many of you – many of us – can find lots of entertaining things about road and street courses, the average consumer here in America isn’t going to give more than about 5 minutes of attention to this kind of racing. It’s a proven fact, people. Champ Car is no more because they couldn’t connect with the wallets of enough fans to sustain the series. That didn’t make them bad or evil or wrong, it just meant they had a broken business model.

Opinons are like backsides in that everyone has one so here’s mine: Stick with events that work (like Texas, Chicagoland, and certainly Long Beach) and drop ones that aren’t increasing at the gate or in the ratings book. Stop looking backwards at money-losing tracks and failed racing products and start looking ahead to what the IndyCar series can become. Look to the future, live in the present, and never forget the mistakes of the past.


  1. Fred Hurley // June 10, 2008 9:14 AM  

    If the IRL wants to make road racing work in America, take a lesson from Cleveland and Edmonton. Airport races are great, the track is wide and fast, and there's plenty of passing. AND, you can see almost the whole track from the stands. The early America road races (leaving aside the earliest races, from one town to another on public roads) were on old airfield and miltary bases.

    Racing at Cleveland, Edmonton, and even Sebring can be fantastic. It's also a formula that can allow the IRL to get a foot into whatever markets they want, without worrying as much about local noise ordnances. Want to race in New England, but the New Hampshire oval doesn't want to play ball? Throw up some stands at Manchester Airport, or TF Green in Providence. Watching Marco, TK, Viso, and hopefully the Insane Paul Tracy (tm) all pile into turn one at Cleveland, the field spreading seven-wide behind them, would be great. THAT is how to make road racing fun for American fans. Airport circuits!!!

  2. Anonymous // June 10, 2008 10:18 AM  

    How can anyone take Robin Miller seriously when he can't even write an article where he doesn't contradict himself ? I encourage people to use the link and go read the whole article. My Name is IRL's Jeff has better facts than what Robin tried to string together. After a race like Texas Saturday night, how can any fan of the IRL write that kind of article ? Or was there some other race in Texas Robin was at ? I obviously was watching a different race. Congrats again to Jeff for a well stated entry !

  3. Anonymous // June 10, 2008 10:30 AM  

    To be painfully honest, outside of Indy and a precious few other venues, open wheel hasn’t had great success in either ratings or attendance for quite a while, regardless of the configuration of the course.

    Mr. IRL, I hope they take your simple advice of simply racing at the most popular tracks (ratings, attendance, or wishfully both) and disregarding any contrived formula.

    I like the diversity of tracks. I think it’s a selling point for the series. But the bed-wetting fear of myself and other IRL (the way it is) fans is a near future schedule featuring Indy, Milwaukee, and 16 road and street courses (most of which are run outside the US), and a driver line up of nothing but F1 rejects, drivers who think they’re on the ladder to F1 (but aren’t), and one or two token American drivers.

  4. Anonymous // June 10, 2008 11:47 AM  


    I hate to disagree with a guy I'm usually "lock-step" with, but for this statement

    I don’t care how beautiful your circuit is, people aren’t going to line up by the thousands year in and year out and pay good money to watch a few hours of pit stop competitions.

    I do have a counter-point from my own experience: Road America.

    During the salad days of CART, their race at RA was often proclaimed the most attended sporting event in Wisconsin, outdrawing the Milwaukee Mile and, gasp!, a Packers game at Lambeau Field! That's nearly 73K at Lambeau, if wikipedia is to be believed.

    (A race outdrawin' The Pack! Oh cri-mo-ny!)

    I don't think any racing series can overlook a track that could draw over 73K paying customers. Now, a large part of that was until the late 1990's, for a CART fan from Chicago you had three choices within a three hour drive: Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Road America.

    But you do raise a salient point: In my opinion, road courses are all about the "experience" of attending as much as the event itself. Part of the fun of a race at Road America was loading up the car or truck with a cooler, a grill, b-b-q fixin's, folding chairs, tables, and a frisbee or Nerf ball and headin' up to God's Country. We'd stake out a spot near the track, unload our stuff, pop some brews, light the grill, and picnic while the race went on. Because you didn't see much of the action at RA. Cars roaring past were almost incidental to the party. The most I've seen of the track was about three turns. Most people followed the race on portable TV's and radios. Contrast that to Milwaukee where I could see all the way around the track and personally follow the race and almost every car on it.

    Now, take away the tailgating, add the nightmare of parking and $6 beers to watch one concrete lined section of track and what's my motivation to attend a street race?

    (BTW, you could add The Meadowlands, the Caesar's Palace Parking Lot GP, and Miami and Denver 1.0 to the list of street races that faded away. And those died in the pre-split days of CART.)

    I'd argue you could and should keep Long Beach and Cleveland due to their history in American Open Wheel (Cleveland since 1983, LB, since 1984), but I'd ask why we couldn't use Mosport or Mont-Tremblant if we want to turn left and right up in the Great White North?

    I'd like to as Mr. Miller a question: Since attendance is falling for N-word races on ovals, does that mean the N-word should start racing The Tank of Today on street courses? I eagerly await his reply on this page.

    C'mon Robin, Oreo answered me.

  5. Jennifer Coomer // June 10, 2008 12:53 PM  

    HEY! Stop bad mouthing my track! I LIKE that Indy Car has a presence in the middle of Napcar country. It also gives me another opportunity to explain the difference between stock car racing and Indy Car.

  6. Anonymous // June 10, 2008 1:42 PM  

    Through the 90's, CART proved any kind of configuration could be equally successful. That said, at the moment, IRL operating costs are simply too high, sponsorship too scarce, and ovals are more expensive (due to the high incidence of crashes). I read Robin's article, and mostly agree with him. I am a purist though.

    The problem you also have with higher banked ovals is that you don't want them running old CART speeds above 220-230 MPH. Therefore, you slow them down by increasing the drag. This allowed for pack racing, which as a racing purist, I don't like. It turns into survival of the luckiest, and that's not racing. The other choice is some sort of Gurney flap or Handford device that slows the car down and allows for sling shot passing, which at least requires strategy by the driver.

  7. Anonymous // June 10, 2008 7:37 PM  

    Until Mr George et al learn how to market the IRL and get Mr and Mrs race fan to acknowledge that it is some of the best and guttsiest racing there is, it won't matter where the races are run, nor will it matter on what kind of course. Why did we play 2nd fiddle to NASCAR's 2nd tier instead of seeing Texas live...because the IRL is not marketed correctly...never has been, still isn't. At the rate it's going we'll be back to a series of a handful of Americans and a United Nations of drivers filling up the rest of the field. How many foreign drivers in the "other" series?...count em...maybe that's part of the popularity...and you can pronounce their names.... and the average race fan has at least a crude idea of where the state they were born in is located.

  8. Anonymous // June 11, 2008 5:22 AM  

    To be fair, from what I understand the Edmonton race lost money as a result of gross mismanagement. That race is said to have grossed $22M and lost $2M, while the St. Pete race takes in $7M with a $2M profit.

    But the salient fact remains, the IRL is treading in dangerous territory by choosing to discard long-time venues in favor of going "where the sanctioning fee" is highest. Street races don't do anything for me; I've been to Houston, Detroit (don't even get me started on that) and the one-time Grand Rapids GP, and the viewing sucks.

    Give me a schedule with Laguna Seca, Road America, and Watkins Glen and you will have more loyal and dedicated racing fans than arm-twisting cookie cutter tracks like Homestead (never seen more than several thousand there), Kansas or Chicago...

  9. Jennifer Coomer // June 11, 2008 7:34 AM  

    I’m still hung-up on Nashville. Another reason why that race does not need to go away…Firestone. Firestone is based in Nashville and is the title sponsor of that race. And I think, for the driver’s safety, we need to keep Firestone happy.

    But you've just spurred me into inviting that many more people to the race.

  10. Carrie // June 11, 2008 8:13 AM  

    Hey! You stuff your anti-Nashville argument, Jeff! It's my only legit chance to see the guys live every year.

  11. Matt // June 11, 2008 2:20 PM  

    Well here is a reason why Homestead is getting dropped, they show the race on Saturday night in late March when the NCAA mens basketball tournament is on.

    If the IRL wants to draw fans they need to quit acting arrogant and race on the Daytona Road Course during Speedweeks. They need to play second for a while to Nascar.

  12. Anonymous // June 13, 2008 1:44 AM  

    a race in Peoria ???!!!!