Tom’s Take: Is IndyCar Done with Ovals? They should be.


The “Big Crowd” that showed up for Phoenix… Photo: IndyCar

In case you missed it over the weekend — and based on TV Ratings and the two thousand people in the stands: you did — there was IndyCar’s triumphant return of the series to Phoenix International Raceway — which was left wanting for a crowd and a race. Aside from the annual pilgrimage to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, perhaps it is very sadly time to put the ovals to sleep like a cancerous dog. Put a fork in them. They are done — perhaps even overcooked! For the promoters at PIR who really did all they could to boost the event, I am heartbroken.

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A first lap crash took out a quarter of the fieldPhoto: IndyCar

A first lap crash, then 22 laps behind a safety car followed by a single file high speed parade, with little or no dicing for the lead, made what could have been an event win for promoters, a total wash. But, chew on this: IndyCar may have a way of redeeming itself by eradicating the oval races. Easily, and for many, this could be seen as a statement of blasphemy as USAC and Champ Cars cut their teeth and have a deeply embedded history on the ovals. Unfortunately, this is not where the sweet spot for the series has maintained.

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Photo: IndyCar

I have been to the last races at the Milwaukee Mile and Auto Club (California) Speedway, both ovals, in the last three years and can tell you, it has changed — and not for the better. The racing is usually great. The super speedways produce monstrous speed and three wide wheel to wheel racing. A one mile oval can produce some intense cat and mouse fights through traffic… For the 2017 Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, this was not to be.

There does not have to be races with empty stands. The street and road courses, which include Road America, Long Beach, Barber, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, Watkins Glen and Detroit’s Belle Isle, all have attracted sizable, and big crowds. It seems that the modern IndyCar fan is more keen to road racing much like the heyday of CART and ChampCar. Consider also, ovals — including the triangle shaped Pocono — has produced the last two fatalities in the series: Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson.

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If an IndyCar race happens and no one is there to see it, did Simon Pagenaud actually win? Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar has been the most embattled series in racing, going back almost 30 years. The politics and numerous bad choices have destroyed what was perhaps the best and most competitive series in the history of racing — and that includes Formula One and NASCAR! When the team owners, led by Dan Gurney, Roger Penske and Carl Haas, formed Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) in the late 1970’s, in what was essentially a Formula One-styled Concorde Agreement, that took the power of rules, sanction, promotion and Television rights away from the directors of USAC — and thereby took the power from the hands of the Speedway itself.

By 1996 Tony George, grandson of Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman, pulled the Speedway away from the CART series and started his own “Indy Racing League” in an effort to bring IndyCar racing back to its roots — while still a controversial topic, most enthusiasts still see this as the moment open wheel racing was destroyed in North America. NASCAR, who had only had their first nationally telecast race in 1979, flew to the front as the preeminent North American racing series in the 1990’s — on ovals!

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Photo: IndyCar

By 2003, CART had gone bankrupt and the Indy Racing League, completely subsidized by the Hulman Family and strictly running on ovals, moved ahead with competing race teams — but sadly not in spectators. Sponsors were adamant with team owners such as Penske, Haas and Ganassi to be a part of the Indy 500. With the exception of last year’s 100th running, even the Indy 500 has had to flail to get 33 starters for the legendary race in the last two and a half decades. But the series has made strides in the last several years to become more like the racing varietals of its most popular era, where the cars ran on ovals, road and street circuits. But the cachet of ovals seems to be dying — even at NASCAR, who has seen their attendance down nearly 50% in the last several years.

The road courses, however, are working — as are the street circuits. A visit to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, three weeks ago, saw an enormous crowd, bolstered by being in a metropolitan city center with tons of excitement and activity. The racing and the show is still viable.

Sadly, oval racing has lost its luster despite what potentially produces great speed and maneuvering. At Phoenix, over the weekend, the drivers blamed the undertray of the current crop of “Spec” Indy race cars which has a safety feature built into the aero that did not allow the cars to run close. Several drivers spoke up about changing this feature — which was essentially filling a hole in the bottom of the car. The teams voted on it and decided they did not want to spend the money on the aero “fix”, opting instead to change this feature for next year when the new IndyCar is produced. This led to the 20-car field, which lost five cars in a first lap incident, being a long line, where the leaders couldn’t even catch the back markers. Bo-ring!

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IndyCar legend — from the CART era — Tom Sneva signs autographs for fans. Photo: IndyCar

The real losers in this deal are the promoters of 2017 Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, who find the sponsors, put up the prize money and sell the tickets and hot dogs. Saturday night at the short track is still an American phenomenon, but IndyCars on any oval beyond the Indy 500 is just a dud. An unnamed driver suggested that the sub-5000 tickets that were sold should be refunded. That is just criminal!

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Photo: IndyCar

There is much criticism out there for IndyCar, but in essence, the series has done much in the last several years to “work with what they have” and perpetuate the show. But if empty stands and a “Formula Sleeping Pill” parade is any indication, the series may want to rethink where it races. I have been told many years in business: “Know your customer.” Perhaps it is time for Indy car to go where the customers are and reach them properly.

About the author

Tom Stahler

At eight months of age, Tom Stahler sat in a baby stroller in Thunder Valley and watched Chuck Parsons and Skip Scott win the 1968 Road America 500. He has had the car bug ever since. He has won several awards, including the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Award and the International Motor Press Association's Gold Medal for his writing and photography. When not chasing the next story, Tom drives in vintage road racing events and spends time with his wife and three daughters in Orange County, California.
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