What Track Will Replace Twin Ring Motegi?

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Last week, Randy Bernard struck again – and I mean that in a good way. He mercifully ended the annual trek to the Land of the Rising Sun by announcing that this season’s journey to Twin Ring Motegi would be the last for the IZOD IndyCar Series. The pros simply didn’t come close to outweighing the cons on this one. Other than making Honda happy, there was no real reason to go there. It made little sense.

I know there’s the argument that we live in a global economy and this helps the exposure of the series worldwide. But, I always felt like the series was shooting itself in the foot every time they went there. Most sponsors gained little, if anything, by going there. How many Target stores are in Japan? What about IZOD? What kind of presence do they have in the Asian market? How about Verizon? Do you think Meijer or Venom Energy covets a greater market share in Japan?

Most sponsors got nothing from going to Japan. What about the series itself? It was a logistical nightmare to pack up cars, back-up cars, engines, tires, spare parts, tools, safety vehicles, etc; then load it all up and fly it all halfway around the world a week before the race. Oh, yes – the teams flew their personnel over and housed them. To make things even more difficult; the teams didn’t stay just down the road from the track. The facility is on a mountaintop, and most team members and drivers had to be bussed in from more than an hour away.

All this took place in the fall, when the NFL season had started. A sport that struggles to find its way into the mainstream most of the season, suddenly finds itself racing half a world away, at midnight sandwiched between full days of college and pro football, on a channel no one seems to know they already have. To make this nightmare scenario even more bleak – the racing was generally very boring. This, at a point in the schedule, when even the most die-hard fans are having trouble staying interested. The series also has to block out travel and logistics weekends before and after the midnight affair that no one watches. It begs the question; if you hold a race on another continent and no one sees it on television – did it really happen?

It didn’t take Randy Bernard very long to see that this was a bad situation. Honda has been an excellent partner to the IZOD IndyCar Series, but this was a perk to them that made no sense. Firestone’s parent company, Bridgestone, is also a Japan-based company; but most of the top brass making racing decisions is located right here in Nashville.

Our friend, Pressdog, quickly recognized that this could be a blow to an already depleted number of ovals on the schedule. He correctly points out that this could be a chance for another road or street course to take the slot vacated by Motegi. With yet another street race in Baltimore on the schedule, the trend is to race more on city streets and less on ovals. That’s a disturbing trend if you aren’t a fan of the “twisties”, as Pressdog likes to call street/road courses.

The problem is, with so many ovals in the hands of so few players – it’s tough to find one to replace Motegi with. Every time the potential for a new oval on the schedule comes up, it’s the same tracks that everyone talks about – Phoenix, Michigan and Fontana. Unfortunately, they are all controlled by ISC (read: NASCAR) and they have not really been forthcoming in trying to help our series grow. If they were more willing to work with IndyCar, don’t you think Kansas, Chicago, Homestead or even Watkins Glen would have been on the 2011 schedule?

So if the IZOD IndyCar series wants to pursue another oval track, they’ll either have to strike another deal with Bruton Smith to add another of his SMI tracks to the schedule to join fellow SMI tracks Texas, Kentucky, Las Vegas, New Hampshire and Infineon. Bristol is way too small, but either Atlanta or Charlotte is a possibility. I was living in Charlotte and attended the IndyCar race the night that three spectators were killed, when a tire flew into the turn four stands. For the next few weeks, Humpy Wheeler, The Charlotte Observer and almost the entire city of Charlotte vilified open-wheel racing. Unless things have changed dramatically in the past twelve years, I’m not sure open-wheel racing will ever be welcomed back there; so that leaves Atlanta. I think that’s an iffy proposition at best.

If they didn’t go the SMI route, they may have to look at some of the more obscure ovals around the country. The shuttered Gateway track just east of St. Louis comes to mind. It needs some work and is not in the most scenic locale. I’ve heard Darlington mentioned, but I can’t see that. Rockingham is an interesting idea that might have legs, but the area is very isolated.

Longtime reader, commenter and fellow Nashville resident “John Mc” will beat the drum for Nashville. As much as I’d love to see the series come back to my city, I think the track is a white elephant. The drivers don’t like the concrete surface. The concrete is too rough on the tires and the bumps are too rough on the drivers. It’s way too narrow to produce any passing. Plus, it’s fifty miles from downtown Nashville and is literally located in the middle of nowhere. Like Motegi, the crews have to stay at the closest hotel, which is an hour away. There is no lodging, no restaurants, and no fast food. Nothing. Just farmland and cattle. It is not the best place I can think of. Yet, when the Edmonton race was off of the schedule – Nashville kept surfacing as a viable alternative.

I always enjoyed races at Nazareth, but I don’t even know if that track still exists. Ditto for Pikes Peak. Pocono is always mentioned, but I’ve gone into detail before about why I don’t think that will ever happen.

The series needed to leave Motegi. The resulting dominos falling in the aftermath brings more questions than answers. But I agree with Pressdog, they need to replace an oval with an oval. The question is – which one?

George Phillips

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24 Responses to “What Track Will Replace Twin Ring Motegi?”

  1. I would love to MIS back on the Indycar calendar, the races there were always good, with the races in the 1990’s being the most memorable, 95 and 98 always being ones that come to mind.

    But unless Bruton Smith decides to buy over the speedway I seriously doubt ISC would allow an Indycar race.

  2. Jack in NC Says:

    Are any NASCAR tracks open to having IndyCar races there? For selfish reasons I’d like to see them race at Martinsville, VA. While a longtime NASCAR track, it is sort of on the fringes of the traditional NASCAR territory (the southeast). It is in a beautiful setting, and is close to Greensboro and Roanoke.

  3. Fontana is the only answer. Even though they can’t draw flies, they lost one of their two Nascar events and it seems like it’s the only N-car track that N-car wants Indycar to run. It was to be the finale race next year if Vegas didn’t work out. Nashville is the other possibility, but with Firestone bailing, that seems unlikely.

    For the future, it seems the only races that folks actually want to promote are street twisties–Baltimore this year, Brazil 2.0, Houston, whatever. The only way to keep the schedule balanced is to work out a deal with Nascar and not only race their ovals, but race their best ovals–Michigan, Pocono, Atlanta.

    And I know all the downside of it, but they have an oval track or two in England now. Home of Lotus.

    • sorry–that should have read “finale race this year”–time flies. and a question for Jack, Martinsville is a great track for N-car, but it’s too short for Indy, right?

      • Jack in NC Says:

        Probably. It is only a little over a half mile long, but with its tight turns and 800 foot straights, it’s somewhere in between an oval and a road course. Might be very interesting to have Indy Cars there.

    • Leigh O'Gorman Says:

      Rockingham (UK) may not be able to host a race at the moment due to noise laws. It would need to be paired with others series’ (BTCC for example) and that might mean IndyCar playing the support card.

  4. Jack in NC Says:

    I know we’re talking about ovals here, but if they ever want to add another road course – not a street course but an honest road course, they should consider VIR – Virginia International Raceway, in Danville, VA. Again, it’s close to some decent sized cities (Greensboro, Raleigh, Roanoke), is in a beautiful setting and is a first class venue for racing. Check out: http://www.virnow.com/

  5. I like Gateway’s layout, and they’ve lost Sprint Cup races, but I understand the facility is in horrible shape.

    I like the classic ISC ovals (Phoenix, Michigan, Chi-land, Fontana, Michigan by preference), but I support Indycar telling ISC to shove it up their’s. Their loss.

    Pocono is very unlikely to host Indycar until all the track’s safety modifications are complete AND they show any real interest in doing so.

    I have no problem w Nashville, but if the locals can’t get their arms around it, why should I? Which leaves…

    SMI, who is at least being favorable to Indycar despite having to also placate the France monarchy for N-word races, has Atlanta and Charlotte. I’d vote for Atlanta in this case.

    Personally, I’d love to see Road Atlanta, Road America, Elkhart Lake or Laguna Seca take the place of Motegi, but I also think an oval is a wiser choice overall.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    No one has mentioned Dover. Concrete and hosted disappointing crowds for the IRL, yes, but it is non-ISC and you can never have too many 1 mile ovals.

    I’d also love to see the IndyCars try the Memphis track that’s scheduled to reopen this year. However, given that the only national event the new owners have scheduled thus far is an IHRA meet for the dragstrip, I don’t think they’d be interested in paying an IndyCar sanctioning fee that rivals what they paid when the bought the facility from Dover Downs.

    Pikes Peak is operating again, but supposedly has some contract with ISC that does not allow them to host anything more than local and regional series.

    Nazareth is for sale, and has been for some time. ISC move the grandstands to Watkins Glen, but the track itself is still there, cracked and overgrown with weeds, but still there.
    Gateway would require a lot less work, heck, Texas World would require a lot less work (unless you count pacifying Eddie Gossage).

  7. While I remain a proponent of INDYCAR returning to Pocono, last year’s NASCAR race showed just how much work would have to be done to accomodate the series. There are simply too many safety issues that would have to be addressed, and that’s before you start talking about re-paving the place.

    I’ve also made no secret of the fact that I’d LOVE to see the INDYCARS handle Darlington, but the chances of that range somewhere between “slim” and “none,” with “none” holding the decided advantage.

    I also acknowledge that Daytona is the epicenter of NASCAR, but can you imagine what the speeds would be like, particularly on the newly re-paved surface?

    Rockingham might be interesting, but only in the short term, as there are almost NO accomodations nearby. When I was living in Laurinburg, NC, about 20 miles from Rockingham, virtually EVERY motel room was sold out for the NASCAR spring date there. And, to be honest, Lauringburg isn’t much more than an eyeblink on the highway of life.

    Fontana would be nice if anyone would attend. The last thing the series needs right now is another venue with aluminum “fans.”

    All of this leads me to believe that Atlanta might be the best choice. INDYCAR needs desperately to get its footprint back into the south, and while Atlanta IS geographically southern, it is more homogeneous in its population. Scheduling might be the biggest problem because Atlanta is not only an NFL city, but there are two stong college football programs in UGA and Georgia Tech that have SERIOUS Atlanta area fan bases. A spring race might be the best way to go there, but then you run into conflict with NASCAR.

  8. Pocono needs some work, but I could see it getting back on the schedule in another year or so. It’s a historic track in a good part of the country.

    Nashville would be a good choice, I think. It’d make a big sponsor happy, for one.

  9. Humpy’s gone from Charlotte, it would be perfect for Indycar, it’s in the South East and would give them a chance to steal some NASCAR fans. MIS might work, if Indycar can get General Motors on board, NASCAR won’t (can’t) stand in the way. They’ve got to try and patch up the relationship with ISC, though. Because Nashville, Gateway, and Dover are horrible, horrible tracks for open wheel. That leaves Pocono, which may or may not be safe enough

  10. I know this one sounds a little silly………..but what’s the status on Walt Disney World Speedway???? Is it even still there?

  11. With regards to Charlotte, personally I would love it as I now live here. But also, the tragedy happened in 1999- many moons ago in Charlotte time. There was still tremendous growth here until the recent downturn. Many transients. Also, a couple of key safety changes have happend over the last 10+ years- increased safety with the wheel tethers, raised catch fence heights. As sick and twisted as it sounds, I’m sure there is a faction of people that would come out just to see if it could happen again.

    On the down side, N-Car has 2 races (3 if you count the All-Star)- Memorial Day and October, however, all have dropped signficantly in attendance. Could INDYCAR sneak a date here? (Voice in my head says it would be really, really cool to have a race in late March/early April to add an oval before Indy….)

  12. Hope this goes to Fontana… It has been too long since they have had an INDYCAR type open wheel race there. I agree with Redd that Fontana is the only ISC track that would work.

  13. H.B. Donnelly Says:

    Nazareth, essentially a one-mile road course with all left turns, had its grandstands moved to Watkins Glen and I’m sure has been torn up to make a shopping mall like the old Chicago Motor Speedway was. Pikes Peak had a lot of its stands dismantled and only holds track days from what I understand. Pocono would be my top choice, but there’s only a few months that have agreeable weather and NASCAR has that timespan locked up. As for the 1.5-mile SMI tracks, I would like to see how the new, non-identical cars race at Texas before I suggest one of those.

    A choice that hasn’t been floated is to partner with someone like Rusty Wallace (who built Iowa Speedway) and get an oval built that will serve Seattle/Tacoma and Vancouver. I can’t for the life of me understand how no one has built a track in the Pacific Northwest, especially since Portland stopped holding races. NASCAR has never tapped that market, and to make IndyCar the first big oval series to hit that region could be big.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Nazareth is still for sale, the track is still there but has received absolutely no maintenance since ISC shut it down.

  14. They’ve tried (hard) to put a track in near Seattle, but the uber-liberal groups and their reps in the local and state legislature(s) killed it, really dissed racing fans in general, kinda equated us all with knuckle dragging mouth breathing neanderthals. Living in NW Oregon now, I’d love to see an oval up here somewhere. I’m a fan of road courses too, but I agree that the balance needs to stay evenly distributed, so until something else (like Sonoma) falls off, I won’t push for the return to Portland (a decent road course)

    For the track itself and the market it reaches, Phoenix stands up and shouts for the race…except Phoenix is typically hotter than blazes in September. But with it being a dreaded ISC track and after getting shanked by them and NASCAR (don’t look for any more ‘supportive moves’ by those guys, ever), the only one that makes sense to me is Atlanta. It’s a market for oval enthusiasts that’s largely untapped by the IICS.

  15. I find the argument over which TYPE of track should replace Motegi (road course or roundy round) an interesting one, but shouldn’t the answer simply be “a profitable and popular race”? Keeping the series 50/50 is fine, but T.V. Viewers, butts in seats and the bottom line should be the determining factor for future races. I would like to see MIS, PIR, Road America and Laguna Seca return, but if no one shows up, it doesn’t get watched on T.V. Or isn’t profitable it’s pointless.

  16. I personally think the replacement deal is in place. You don’t walk away from the wheelbarrow full of $$ that the Motegi race brought to the table unless you have something up your sleeve.

    In motegi’s 3 week fall slot I suspect you will see a Houston street circuit added as well as Fontana. Then the carrot that ISC throws IICS way for taking Fontana is a spring Date at Phoenix (You don’t think they repaved for nothing right?).

    ISC has to get a second headline event @ Fontana or it risks Losing Auto Club sponsorship of the speedway. IndyCar will market a “Season Ticket” for both Long Beach and Fontana to get some of the Long Beach throngs to travel inland in the fall. AutoClub will be heavily involved with sponsoring both SoCal races and both Texas races. FYI AAA SoCal and AAA Texas merged in 1995. Kentucky slides back to the summer after it’s nascar date gets a chase slot in the fall of 2012.

    In the end, IndyCar will have the lucrative sun belt TV markets wrapped up for 2012 and can begin thinking about getting DEEP into the NE for 2013.

    Again, Just a Hunch.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I like the optimism and certainly agree that Bernard didn’t drop Motegi without a list of very possible other options, both oval and road.

      However, as the Houston race is still planned for Reliant Park, a fall date would conflict with Texans football. I’m pretty sure they are shooting for an April or May date in Houston, since that is when Reliant Park is available and it’s not guaranteed to be insanely hot.

    • Didn’t I hear something about the repaving at PIR actually being a redesign of the track to a higher banked deal (ala Vegas)? I hope it was just a bad rumor, and I hope you’re right, JP. Phoenix was always one of the best short oval races on the circuit in the USAC and CART era.

      I still think a race in Fontana in September isn’t a great idea ’cause of the heat (it’s a 90% chance of miserable there that time of year)…and not sure how much ‘shuffling’ of the schedule they can or will do in consideration of that…but I’ll tell ya, you’ll draw a LOT more fans to a track like Fontana if it’s in the low 80s or high 70s as opposed to being somewhere in the 90 – 100 degree range. The package ticket deal for LB and Fontana makes a lot of sense though, unless they price it through the roof for the two race deal. LB being a street deal (I lived there and attended more years than I can account for, not counting the years I was on teams and working the race) it doesn’t necessarily draw a hard-core racing fan crowd. They’re there of course, but it’s a huge number of people who’re there because of a 3-day party in a great setting, and the weather at the coast in April is almost always beautiful.

  17. How bad an idea would it be to simply run a 400 at IMS?

  18. Cowboy Racer Says:

    I know there is a big push for street races because of the increased crowds, but I find these races somewhat boring because of the lack of passing. This may sound strange, but I often wonder if anyone has have ever thought about creating an oval “street” track with long straights and just four turns. It might make for some interesting racing if they could find wide enough streets to allow the drivers to out brake one another.

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