Are Street Circuits Really Needed?
During last week’s edition of Trackside with Cavin & Kevin; a passionate caller, Mike in Indianapolis, called in to complain about the existing business model of the Izod IndyCar Series. The IICS continues to gravitate more and more towards the CART model of the early to mid-nineties; which consisted of many foreign drivers racing mostly on street circuits and road courses with a handful of ovals thrown in, including the Indianapolis 500. Although TV ratings were at an all-time high and were about equal to NASCAR’s ratings at the time – many fans, including myself, longed for a schedule that consisted of more ovals.
As Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee went back and forth debating the pros and cons of the current schedule, Kevin offered this rhetorical response: “It sounds like someone should start up an all-oval series based on American drivers”. Although he was kidding, he proved a valid point by being absurd.
Tony George tried this when he created the Indy Racing League. He created an all-oval series that was built around the crown jewel in racing – the Indianapolis 500. In doing so, the thought was that this new series would re-introduce aspiring USAC sprint and midget drivers to big-time open-wheel racing. The problem was, no one bought in to it.
There was a small pocket of fans that shared Tony George’s supposed vision. They had grown tired of seeing names like Foyt and Unser being replaced by names like Fittipaldi and Luyendyk. Like most of us, they had become bored with tuning in and watching parades at boring street circuits like the rough streets in downtown Denver, the tight confines of Belle Isle or the most ridiculous circuit yet – racing around and over an interstate interchange at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford N.J.
So in the name of the fans and the lost American driver, Tony George started the IRL. In reality, this was more about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway regaining the control of the sport it had lost, with the formation of CART in the fall of 1978.
Personally, I agree with almost every principle that the IRL was founded on – to some extent. I much prefer oval racing to turning right. However, watching CART races in the eighties and nineties exposed me to road course racing when I may not have ever watched it before. Over time, I have grown to appreciate road course racing and I think that it enhances the overall schedule to include a few road course races. It also requires drivers and teams to be more versatile to include road courses on the schedule.
Road course racing also brings in a whole new segment of fans to the sport. I would submit that the fans that attend races at Road America in Elkhart Lake, WI or at Mid-Ohio are some of the best and most knowledgeable fans in the sport. Bringing those fans into the sport adds an entirely new dynamic to your fan base.
Street course racing is another story. Watching a street race on television is a tiresome way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I represent the die-hard segment of the Izod IndyCar fan base. Yet, after watching a street race at Long Beach or Toronto – I sometimes say to myself that that’s two hours of my life that I’ll never get back. In all honesty, street races are painful events to watch on TV. I’ve never attended one in person, but I would think for a true race fan that wasn’t there strictly to party, it would be frustrating to be there.
I understand the economic theory behind street courses. The thinking is that the IICS will stage races on temporary street circuits in or near the heart of major metropolitan areas such as New York (the Meadowlands), Los Angeles (Long Beach) and Toronto. The scenes of these races suddenly become major party atmospheres for a weekend, as half-clothed babes mill about with drink in hand as a racecar driven by a driver with a funny name goes whizzing by. The league is banking on some of these spectators possibly becoming lifelong IndyCar fans.
As Mike from Indianapolis correctly pointed out, the chance of any of those people tuning in the following week to watch the next IndyCar race and suddenly getting hooked is almost non-existent. I seriously doubt that many of the sun-drenched blondes that attended last year’s race at Long Beach knew that (a) Helio Castroneves had just returned from a traumatic court appearance with the IRS; (b) Will Power rolled a strange car off of the trailer and put it on the pole or that (c) Dario Franchitti won the race in only his second race back from a one year absence. Nor do I think for a minute that any of the first-time attendees at the Long Beach race were suddenly so enthralled with what they saw, that they made a point to carve out some time the next week to watch the oval race at Kansas.
Yes, the league needs exposure in all corners – but they don’t need to be pinning their hopes on a bunch of weekend revelers that attend a race just to ogle at scantily clad females. Yes, that can be an added bonus for race goers but it shouldn’t be their primary reason for attending a race. Those fickle fans will leave you as quickly as they found you.
If Tony George was not able to pull off the all-oval series with the presence of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it’s obvious no one else will either. Is Tony George the most market savvy race promoter out there? Hardly. But if he couldn’t do it with the IMS in his back pocket, no one else will be able to either. So the answer lies somewhere between an all-oval series and a schedule loaded down with street races. Do I have the answer? No. If I did, I would have a career in motorsports and wouldn’t be blogging away for free.
Curt Cavin is fond of saying that the Izod IndyCar Series has to be invited to a venue before they can race there. Well, how does that happen? It happens by creating a product that people want to see in person. I am a southern-born American and I would like to see more Americans in the series. But unlike some, I’m not turned off by the presence of foreign drivers. To me, it adds to the allure of our sport that these are some of the best in the world that come to participate in this sport. I’m also not convinced that an all-American field would suddenly make our sport more attractive.
I think that people that have the potential to become long-term race fans do so because of the speed, technology and yes…the danger involved with our sport. Spec series cars conducting parades through the concrete canyons of Belle Isle do little to sell our sport on any of those attributes. Spectators and viewers need to be left with a sense of awe in order to have a reason to come back week after week.
So what is my answer? Like many, I have an opinion. In a perfect world, assuming the IRL could get invited to all venues — I would race a twenty race schedule across North America. Fourteen to fifteen of those races would be on ovals – including Fontana, Michigan, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Charlotte and New Hampshire (selfishly, I would want Nashville back in the mix) while the remaining races would be run over natural terrain road courses that included Road America, Portland and Road Atlanta. I could be persuaded to add Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland as an exception to my ban of temporary street courses – but that would be it.
To me, that’s a balance that would satisfy most. The oval fans get their oval fix most of the time, but they get a little variety with some scenic and challenging road courses thrown in. The road race fans still get their same number of natural terrain permanent road courses without the artificial creation of the temporary street course. This would also satisfy the drivers who have the itch to intentionally turn right from time to time. With the long-term deal from Izod, perhaps the league could take the approach to build a long-term fan base this way rather than going after the fickle fans that will never stick with them, anyway.