IndyCar Needs Road America

To tell the truth, I don’t watch a ton of NASCAR. I don’t really hold a grudge against them, even though they claim to invent everything. Nor do I blame them for getting the vast amount of ratings, so far as racing goes. It’s not their fault they do a better job of marketing, even though I don’t care for their product as much as the Verizon IndyCar Series. It’s more about so much time in a weekend.

This past Saturday, I had a full day of yard work planned. Unfortunately, the weatherman didn’t care. I got possibly about twenty percent of my scheduled chores done before the skies opened up. This was no summer shower – this was an early afternoon monsoon that ended any possibility of working outside. Without guilt, I turned on the Nationwide race at Road America – just as they were getting started, or so it seemed. As it turns out, the weatherman was wreaking havoc with their day as well.

They eventually got going and before it was over, Alex Tagliani put on a clinic on how to drive a road course in the rain. In the final two laps, he passed something like twenty-two cars after running out of fuel under the yellow. He eventually finished second in the one-off effort for Roger Penske.

Watching that race made me realize just how much I miss watching open-wheel racing at Road America. I’ve been saying for years that I hoped the Verizon IndyCar Series could somehow work Road America onto their schedule. But after seeing that venue for the first time in years, I think it is now a must.

I speak longingly of this track as if I’ve been there. I haven’t. In fact, I’ve not set foot in the great state of Wisconsin since a family vacation took us there back in 1972. But I’ve been watching CART/Champ Car race there for years. It has always seemed to be a magical place and it’s been on my to-do list for some time.

For whatever reason, the 1991 CART race stands out in my mind. I had watched races there many times before, but it was the 1991 race when I vowed to go there sometime. It took place in late September. That summer had been brutal here in Tennessee. It was refreshing to watch that race. While it was still sweltering here, the race at Road America was being held in cool temperatures, with just a hint of fog. Everyone was wearing something that had been foreign to me for several months – jackets.

The setting was gorgeous. The trees had already started turning to their fall colors. Seeing Indy cars charging through the colorful forests that are ever-present at Road America, was almost surreal. I remember the race being a spirited battle between Michael Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. Andretti won that day with Unser, Jr. finishing second. Little Al was the defending series champion, and Michael went on to win the 1991 championship. As the aerial cameras kept showing their duel nestled between the foliage – the phrase that kept running through my mind was “Poetry in Motion”.

To me, Road America is as good as road racing gets in North America. Others may argue for other venues, but Road America gets my vote. It is unique in so many ways. It’s about as close to Spa-Francorchamps as you can get on this side off the pond. The Belgium Grand Prix at Spa was always one of my favorite Formula One races, for the same reasons that I like the circuit at Road America. They are both long tracks with undulating terrain in a setting with a dramatic and scenic backdrop.

Road America is located in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. From what I understand, Elkhart Lake is one of many quaint small villages dotting the central Wisconsin countryside. The track is 4.0 miles with fourteen turns, so a 200-mile race is only fifty laps. Teams had better plan their fuel strategy carefully. It’s a long way back to the pits if you run out on the far side of the track.

The track first opened in 1955. CART first raced there in 1982 and ran races there every year through 2007, with the exception of 2005. By that time, I had quit following Champ Car and cannot tell you why there was no race then, but they did return in 2006. They were also scheduled to race there in 2008, but unification of the two series cancelled that race. The track record was set in 2000, by Dario Franchitti, who navigated the 4-mile course in 1:39.866.

The start/finish line is on the long main straightaway, just beyond the crest of a large hill. As cars come off the last turn, they must get a full head of steam to either climb the hill for the next lap, or be able to climb the steep pit lane that runs alongside.

Turn One is where AJ Foyt suffered severe injuries to his legs and ankles in 1990. He had been having problems with his brakes all weekend. As his car raced downhill towards Turn One, Foyt’s brakes failed as he approached. His car went airborne before settling near a grove of trees. His ankles were shattered, but he somehow made it back to put his car on the front-row at Indianapolis the following May.

Not to name-drop (but I guess I am), when I interviewed Randy Bernard back in 2011 – I asked him about the possibility of adding Road America to the schedule. First, he said that everyone loves Road America. He said that if everyone who has told him about Road America would buy a ticket, it would be a no-brainer. He then said that making Milwaukee successful was the top priority in that area. Once successful, they might look at alternating between The Milwaukee Mile and Road America.

My question is…why not both? Yes they are both in the same state, but they offer two totally different types of racing. Wisconsin supported them both for more than a couple of decades. Have one in early summer and the other in late summer to early fall. I really liked that early fall date in 1991; when the trees were turning, with teams and spectators donning jackets.

In all honesty, it saddened me to see the lumbering stock cars of the Nationwide Series run their fifth straight race at Road America, while Indy cars have not run there since 2007. Fans are split on which oval they’d like to see return to the schedule. Michigan and Phoenix probably lead the way, but Chicagoland and Richmond aren’t far behind in popularity among most fans. And there’s always the possibility of Nashville now looming. But ask most fans what road course they’d most like to see return. Chances are, most will say Road America.

Apparently, there is some interest from Road America. Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press had an article Saturday, quoting Road America track president George Bruggenthies as saying he’s open to the idea of bringing IndyCar to the track. He sites IndyCar’s high sanctioning fee as the biggest hurdle, along with the current TV package. He mentions Michael Andretti’s steep discount as track promoter at Milwaukee. But he notes that many of their fans want to see the Verizon IndyCar Series at Road America. He doesn’t sound very encouraging, but he’s not saying no, either.

It’s easy for me to give away someone else’s money, but Mark Miles really needs to take a look at how to get Road America on the schedule. It’s not an oval, but it’s an historic racing venue that all fans want to see the series run. I understand the problems of granting sanctioning fee discounts to one promoter, but not another. Perhaps it’s time for the entire business model regarding sanctioning fees to be looked at.

I don’t pretend to know what goes on in these discussions between a track and a sanctioning body. But I do know that CART brought a huge crowd of people to Road America in the past. Chances are the current IndyCar Series would bring a nice-sized crowd as well. Road America could certainly benefit by having the Verizon IndyCar Series race at their track.

But make no mistake – IndyCar needs Road America more than Road America needs IndyCar. It would show a restless fan-base that the series is listening to them, rather than operating from a bunker mentality and basing the schedule solely on the bottom-line. This would do wonders for the fan base and send a message that the series is seriously seeking out venues known for racing.

Ironically, we are talking about a return to an historic and scenic venue that offers tremendous racing during a week that the Verizon IndyCar Series will run a double-header around the Astrodome and Reliant Stadium in Houston during the heat of the day in late June. Sorry, but after what I saw on Saturday -  Road America sounds just a little more appealing.

George Phillips


20 Responses to “IndyCar Needs Road America”

  1. Road America won’t pay full sanctioning fee because they don’t think they can make money if they do. IndyCar won’t lower it .. because if you lower it for one track, then any track who is paying full boat instantly has a beef (see Road America’s comments about Milwaukee). I’d say Road America is more focused on getting a Cup race than an IndyCar race. As for Miles, Road America is not located in Indianapolis, so it’s not a priority.

    • Phil Kaiser Says:

      Bill, come on, man! Where was Miles during most of the “Month of May” this year? Only leading Indianapolis’ charge for another freaking Stupid Bowl, that’s where. And let us just remember that it is called IndyCar, not IowaCar. There’s a reason for that. Why wouldn’t the largest single-day sporting event in the world (repeat after me: IN THE WORLD, lol) merit priority status? Man, I love your stuff and you are funny as hell, but enough of giving Indianapolis crap for inventing and sustaining AWOR. Ever look at the license plates in Iowa’s parking lot at the Cornpone 200?

      Relax, I’m just messin’ with ya!

      And George, pardon me for butting in, but the last thing IndyCar needs (imho) is another road or street course race. Maybe trade RA (which is certainly beautiful) for Detroit, Sonoma or Houston? Great idea, wish it could happen….

      Phil Kaiser

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I was watching as well and was imagining an IndyCar race with the RA backdrop. This is, in my opinion, very doable.

    By the way, RA probably had more viewers because of the rain, at least in our case. Also, when I tuned in Hornish was up front so I was glad to pull up a seat.

  3. I much prefer ovals so maybe that colors my comment but I would trade all the road courses currently on the schedule for Road America. Its one of the few road courses they should run.

    And this shows you the problem with the sanctioning fee doesn’t just affect the oval races.

  4. Anyone have a clue how the Indycar business works?

    Here’s my very simplified guess: they charge a sanctioning fee to track owners, let’s say 1 million per race, to stage a race. Then Indycar gets a certain amount per race from TV, let’s say 1 million per race, not counting the 500. Then they get part of the money from the gate and TV for the 500–let’s say 5 million. And they get something like 5 million a year from Verizon. So theoretically, if Indycar has 20 races + the 500 they make 50 million dollars.

    Then, in lieu of actual prize money (again, not counting the 500) they give each entry (up to like 20 or something) a million dollars as a participation bonus. So they pay out 20 million to owners. So Indycar makes 25 million dollar per year, not counting sponsorship money and whatever else. I mean, is this anywhere close? How much money does the series earn…or lose? Anybody know?

    I know that since RBernard the focus has been on profit (unlike the previous administration.) So are they making money yet? Is this the best arrangement for owners and track operators? Doesn’t NASCAR share TV money with track owners? Would that be better for these track owners like Road America? How many teams would the series lose if they stopped the automatic money and just paid much bigger purses for winning?

    • I’ll bite, red.

      For brevity’s sake, we will go with that income level of $50 million. Some races apparently pay less than $1 million in sanction, though some sound like they might pay more, and I am sure that the doubleheaders are not paying double sanction fees, nor would IMS be paying a full $1 million per event…but we will say they average out to $1 million each. $50 million to spend.

      Leaders Circle payouts are something around $1.3 million per car, times about 20 cars. That’s $26 million out, leaving $24 million.

      Next, we will pretend for the sake of this exercise that IndyCar employs 50 people total (it’s probably far, far more than this, especially when you add in the people that only work race weekends, which is harder for me to get my head around, and so we will stick to “full timers” only). You have to pay those people something approaching industry standard salaries, or they will flee to a race team, another sanctioning body, or (gasp) something in the “square community” (Speedgeek shorthand for “any company that is not in racing”). You will have a certain number of $35k per year flunkies, but also a certain number of $250k per year executives (and probably a couple north of that). We will just say that average salary is $80k per year for those 50 people, plus another probably $10k per person in benefits and health insurance (and it’s probably more than that in real life). We now have $4.5 million wrapped up in payroll. $19.5 million left to spend.

      IndyCar is “unfortunate” in that it is a business that takes place, in large part, on the road. Every race weekend equals sending probably 40 of those 50 employees to the events, and then putting them up in hotels and feeding them. Some events, clearly, are more costly than others (Sears Point flights, hotels and food will cost more than, say, the equals at Mid Ohio), but we will just say $1500 per person per flyaway event ($600 for flight, $120 per hotel room per night times four nights per weekend, $250 per weekend in per diem, $200 per weekend per rental car for each group of 4 people, so $50 per person…all of which are probably low, but I am lowballing here, just to see how cheap we can come in). That’s $1380, but we’ll round up to $1500. $1500 times 40 people times 13 flyaway races equals another $780k. Factor in race weekend temps (the officials you see standing on pit road, etc.), and we’re probably up to $1 million in travel costs (you can see here why IndyCar probably likes the IMS events, too…no flights and hotel beds to buy). There are also similar costs for any official test days, and the countless days that people may travel to do press or go press flesh at a venue in advance, but I’ll just say that got covered in my rounding up in my last sentence. Anyway, $18.5 million left to spend.

      Sending all of the technical equipment (tech inspection, race control, video equipment) on board a couple of semis (which, in turn, require maintenance and a couple of guys to drive them) to each race? I dunno. Another $1 million, probably. $17.5 million left in the kitty.

      Technical development for safety equipment that can be deployed at the tracks (either as barriers or as stuff on the Holmatro trucks)? $200k (total guess). Maintenance for the aforementioned Holmatro trucks? $50k (another total guess). Paddock club operating costs? $500k (no clue, it’s probably waaaayyyyy more than that). TV promotional spots? Probably another $1-2million.

      Anyway, this is obviously not a full thought experiment here, and I’ve basically run out of any will to go further without being able to actually look at Mark Miles’ network drive (and I don’t think he’s going to send me access to that anytime soon), but I’ve already spent IndyCar well under $15 million of “profit” (and remember, we also inflated their income and deflated all of those expenses). And I’ve probably forgotten at least another 4-5 line items in the budget that rank in the 7-figure range. With this being the case, it’s hard for me to insist that IndyCar instantly slash their sanctioning fees by even as little $200k per race on average, as that would result in some $4 million less dollars to spend. They’ve obviously got a business model that we all wish they’d tweak for our own selfish reasons (and yes, I do count “I personally want a race at Road America” as a “selfish reason”), but it’s their job to work it for a profit. Best of luck to them. Seriously.

      • 750 words. Impressive. (I kid the Geek out of love).

        • I do understand the irony of starting a post with the words “for brevity’s sake”, and then going on for 482 paragraphs. You got me there, ‘dog.

          A couple more thoughts I had: there are way, way more costs involved with running something like IndyCar than I think a lot of people give credit for. For instance, people asked and screamed for better video reviews last year. So, IndyCar went out and invested in a new system (Beaux and Derrick Walker have both mentioned this system here and there in the last 6 months). That system didn’t show up on sale for $299 in the Sunday newspaper flyer for Best Buy. I don’t know anything about it other than that it exists and that it’s supposedly pretty comparable to stuff that the NFL uses, but I can only assume that it was well into the thousands and maybe even tens of thousands of dollars. Yes, it’s something they can use for some number of years, but the money for such things has to come from somewhere. Same as for the cash for that big, fancy driver intro stage that Randy built, same as for any number of material improvements that IndyCar has had to make over the past few years.

          Point being, between these capital improvements, plus payroll, plus operating costs to send people to races, plus even stuff like lease costs for the Series offices and diesel for the transporters that take all of the Series’ stuff to the races, even if IndyCar is only 50 or so paid full time employees (and I’m pretty sure it’s more than that), it costs WELL into the 8-figure range to run this business. Now, I suppose you could make the case that IndyCar needs to restructure everything top down, from reducing sanctioning fees to incorporating new tracks, to negotiating new TV deals, to pulling in new sponsors, to this, that and the other, but that sort of thing is WAAAAAYYYYYY hard to do in just a couple of years, and completely impossible to do overnight. Also, there’s every chance that in the end, all that stuff won’t work, anyway, and you just went through all that pain and work for no gain, and you maybe just put the entire Series and all of the teams out of business. That’s why IndyCar is going about things the way they’re doing: small, incremental changes that they are relatively sure won’t put anybody out of work. Can anybody really blame them for that?

          • thanks, S-geek, for all that. it’s complicated for sure, and I’m sure there are even more expenses than you itemized. I’ve always wondered (since Bernard anyway) what it was going to take for the series to make a profit. Or if it has? I also wondered how dwarfed (in budget and profit) Indycar is by NASCAR, but I won’t ask you to itemize that too!

  5. Sorry. Me again. But it occurs to me that watching NASCAR on a road course is like watching hockey players figure skate–and by that I mean very entertaining in it’s own way.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    A title-sponsored, sanction-paying Road America is a no brainer addition to the schedule. I hope we see it.
    I do wonder, hypothetically, what would happen if everything was in place but Road America wanted a September date like they had in the late 80s/early 90s? Would Indycar bend its rule on the schedule’s end date? You’re right, I’m just sniping now…

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    When discussions come up about IndyCar returning to this track or that track, ovals or road courses, the comment most commonly made is that “IndyCar can only go where they are wanted”. Actually, they can only go where promoters can afford them. The owner of Road American has often been quoted as saying he would like to have IndyCar racing there again, but he cannot make money paying the IndyCar sanctioning fee. As George as stated here and as I have been saying for years, IndyCar needs to examine their business model regarding sanctioning fees in light of the reality of today’s economy. I don’t believe IndyCar can grow the series by skipping around the world each winter trying to frack money from oil rich kingdoms. Continuity at USA tracks should be a business plan priority. They can’t just go to Baltimore for a few years, then take the dog and pony show to New Orleans for a year or two, and then somewhere else for a few years and expect to rebuild a fan base.

    Also, crowd sizes are not likely to return to previous levels at any track for reasons too numerous to list here.

  8. Indycar should be at Road America. After all, every other road racing series in the US goes there. Champcar went there. ALMS, Grand Am, TUDOR United, Pirelli World Challenge, NASCAR Nationwide, AMA Pro Racing, they all go there. Really, Indycar just needs some tracks that produce good racing, oval and road course. Unfortunately, it just seems like we’ll get more club/motorcycle tracks and street courses.

  9. 这里是一个值得的文章,发表这过去的一周。我只希望我能理解印刷的字。啊所 取暖器的晚餐菜单,我的英语水平是可怕的。

  10. First up (there’ll be more comments by me in responses to a couple other comments here), I remember that 1991 Road America CART race very well. I got bitten by the racing bug in March of that year (something about sparking titanium skid blocks on F1 cars at Phoenix), the disease set in well and truly during the Month of May, and I was totally gone by that September, watching every F1, CART, NASCAR, IMSA, and undercard series (Busch Grand National, Indy Lights, Toyota Atlantic, Barber Saab, Firestone Firehawk, and on and on) of all four of those that I could find on TV. That misty September afternoon stuck in my mind for months. I couldn’t believe that IndyCar, the same guys who ran at the Indy 500, also raced at this incredible, picturesque road course just across my home state. How awesome. I never actually managed to make it to Road America for an IndyCar race (I only ever saw the qualifying sessions for ChampCar when I went for the doubleheader with ALMS in 2007; I didn’t care much for the ChampCar field at the time, and I had to get on a plane back to Nebraska early on race day), but that day led to me conning my parents into taking me there for the SCCA June Sprints in 1993 and 1995 (the latter in lieu of a high school graduation party; they gave me the choice, my decision making process took all of maybe five nano seconds). I’ll never forget those weekends at the track, especially since they were my first (and second) at any race track of any kind larger than a third-mile dirt track.

    As a result, if IndyCar and Road America ever figure out a way to make a race weekend happen, I’ll be booking all of my travel and accommodations the following day. IndyCar would be spectacular there, and if they structure the weekend the way they did the Barber weekend this year (Road to Indy plus Pirelli World Challenge) or as a doubleheader with IMSA…that’s basically my version of nirvana. Me, the Hurry Downs, a Johnsonville brat in one hand and a New Glarus Spotted Cow in the other (forsaking my own beloved Leinenkugel’s just this once for the RA local-ish brew), and I’m the happiest man in the world…

  11. If every track we wanted back on the sechedule was back on the schedule, there would be enough races to fill out the calander. Road America is cool, but I am more partial to Watkins Glen and Laguna Seca. The CLE Airport would be third for purely selfish reasons since it is just up 71 from me.

  12. Says:

    The return of Road America to the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule would be as unexpected as the return of Pocono. That did happen last year, and it’s still on the schedule. Go figure.

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