Will Ovals Ever Make A Comeback?

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Last week, we may have all gotten a glimpse of the future with the release of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. For the first time ever in the IRL/IndyCar era, there are only five ovals on the slate, as compared to eleven races on street and road courses. In CART’s last year of existence, there were only three ovals. I don’t even count the four years of Champ Car that eventually got down to no ovals in 2007, their last season before unification.

Before I go any further, let’s get one thing clear – I’m an oval guy. Ovals were my introduction to racing. For those that are strictly interested in the on-track competition, I think ovals are far more enjoyable in-person than non-ovals. While I acknowledge the amount of skill involved to be successful on a road or street course, I am much more in awe of the men and women who can successfully execute a pass heading into Turn One at Indianapolis, than I am those that can force a pass in the 40-mph hairpin at Long Beach.

I don’t buy into the notion that this is some Mark Miles conspiracy to eventually rid the entire schedule of ovals, except for the Indianapolis 500. But that’s not to say it won’t happen.

There are several things at play here, and none of them are good. NASCAR’s sister company, ISC; and Bruton Smith’s SMI, own the vast majority of oval tracks in the US. That leaves only Milwaukee, Pocono, Dover and Gateway as the only major oval tracks that are still operational that are not tied to those two behemoths. There is debate about how willing ISC is to deal with IndyCar, but the fact that Phoenix is the only ISC track on next year’s schedule says something.

That’s compared to those ISC tracks that fans have seen drop off the IndyCar schedule in the past decade – Michigan, Fontana, Homestead, Chicagoland, Kansas, Richmond along with the historic road course at Watkins Glen. Bruton Smith’s representation isn’t that much better. Texas and Sonoma remain staples of the IndyCar schedule, but former IRL/IndyCar tracks in the SMI portfolio, Charlotte, Atlanta, Kentucky, Las Vegas and New Hampshire far outnumber those two that remain.

But if you happen to catch any NASCAR races, you’ll notice that they’re not exactly having to turn people away. Although it doesn’t look as barren as the Brickyard 400, even the night race at Bristol is showing a lot of bare aluminum seating in the TV shots. If you saw any of yesterday’s "Chase" race at Martinsville, you saw a lot of tarps covering empty sections as well as large spans of empty seats. There seems to be a disturbing decline in interest in motorsports – especially among the younger generation.

Ovals, in particular, appear to be suffering the most. Many self-described motorsports purists turn their noses up at ovals, but will wax poetically about the skill and beauty of road racing. According to this lot, ovals are considered the playing fields for rednecks and those that like racing for the crashes. It’s that wine and cheese mentality that has helped further the divide among open-wheel fans.

Some consider IndyCar racing a refined alternative to NASCAR, while others look upon it as a F1 wannabe series. Consequently, it has had trouble finding solid footing with either side.

I’ll admit that when the IRL was first formed, I was a CART guy all the way. I stopped going to Indianapolis each May, since the field contained a few CART rejects and a lot of drivers I had never heard of. I was a staunch supporter of the series that had driver names like Unser, Andretti and Rahal; with owners named Penske, Ganassi, Newman/Haas, Gurney, Patrick, Galles and Bettenhausen. They still ran ovals like Michigan, Fontana, Milwaukee, Homestead, Gateway and Nazareth.

But somewhere along the way, my support faded. There seemed to be a greater emphasis on road and street courses. If they ran ovals, they were in Brazil, England or Germany. Ovals like Phoenix, New Hampshire, Milwaukee and Fontana were finding their way to the IRL/IndyCar all-oval series. In 2002, Team Penske jumped full-time to the IndyCar Series. By 2004; Andretti, Ganassi, Rahal, Adrian Fernandez and Mo Nunn had all followed Penske to the all-oval series. This meant an influx of world-class drivers like Gil de Ferran, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Adrian Fernandez and others who cut their teeth on road racing. In order to placate them and prevent them jumping to Champ Car, road & street racing had to be introduced to the IndyCar Series beginning in 2005.

Three non-ovals and fourteen ovals made up the 2005 schedule just a decade ago. St. Petersburg, Sonoma and Watkins Glen added a little variety to all of the ovals that made up the bulk of the schedule. Had it stayed that way, I think everyone would’ve been happy. But fans knew that history often repeats itself. With such a heavy influence from the series formerly known as CART now entrenched in IndyCar, the oval fans knew more non-ovals were coming.

The demise of Champ Car and the subsequent unification in 2008 helped speed along the process. By 2010, the balance on the schedule shifted to where, for the first time in series history, there were more non-ovals (nine) than ovals (eight). That trend has not subsided. For 2016, just eleven years after IndyCar Series drivers first started turning right – there will be more than twice as many non-ovals than ovals. Less than one-third of the races will be ovals – in a series that was founded on the principle of being an all-oval series.

My fear is that the scarcity of ovals on the schedule has not bottomed out yet. Pocono was tenuous for 2016. If attendance doesn’t improve in the next year or two, it could be the next oval casualty. Iowa is now owned directly by NASCAR. The move from Saturday night to late Sunday afternoon will probably not boost its attendance for next year. What was once considered a mainstay on the schedule could now become iffy, in light of the new track ownership. Phoenix failed in the past. Will there be a sudden resurgence in the desert or will it continue to draw sparse crowds? Texas seems safe, but doesn’t draw near the crowds it did before they got their second NASCAR Cup race.

In the meantime, tracks like Barber, Long Beach, Sonoma, Mid-Ohio and Toronto are drawing good crowds; while Road America is expected to have a huge crowd in the first return of open-wheel racing since 2007. Barber, Mid-Ohio and Toronto have knowledgeable race fans in attendance and so will Road America, but the same cannot be said for Sonoma and especially Long Beach. Sonoma is a destination for corporate sponsors to entertain guests, while Long Beach is one big weekend-long party where even seeing a single race car is not all that important.

But to the TV audience, the road and street courses seem to be much better attended than the ovals, and I find that depressing and upsetting.

I’m afraid that the current ovals and any ovals that might find their way onto future IndyCar schedules are battling something much stronger than better marketing or promotion can cure. It’s the cultural swing away from motorsports in general.

Less than fifteen years ago, NASCAR was exploding. People that had previously never watched racing, were standing around the water-coolers on Monday talking about Dale, Jr., Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick. Just a few years later, those people were back to talking about the NFL or whatever trendy sport they had latched on to.

Cultural swings aside, I think the best way to hook new fans is to take them to a track – and not just any track, but an oval track. Depending on the track, it’s quite possible they may be able to see the entire track from one spot. They’ll also be able to get a true sense of speed that they wouldn’t get while going to Barber or Belle Isle. Even though the track at Nashville did not lend itself to good racing, cars were lapping the 1.33-mile concrete oval at 205 mph. Newcomers were in awe of the speed in front of them.

So while I much prefer the ovals, I certainly understand why the current emphasis is on the non-ovals. The only conspiracy at work here is that many more non-oval tracks are willing to host an IndyCar event. Curt Cavin is fond of saying that IndyCar can’t go where the track doesn’t want them. That’s true. It’s simple economics of supply and demand. Until all of the current ovals that host IndyCar races start swelling with bulging attendance, It’s not likely that ISC, SMI or any other owners of oval tracks will come calling. If you want oval track racing to make a comeback, my advice to you is take a friend to an IndyCar oval next season and let them experience it firsthand.

Otherwise, the dearth of ovals on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule will continue. I may be wrong, but I think that the majority of IndyCar fans don’t want that to happen – except for a few of the wine and cheese purists.

George Phillips

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25 Responses to “Will Ovals Ever Make A Comeback?”

  1. One of several times when I don’t know what to choose in the poll … Nonetheless, that’s a well-written post, George.

  2. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I would like to see more ovals myself and I attended the Homestead race for years while watching attendance there decline each year along with the increased whine of oval fans upset because there were less ovals on the sched.
    The only chance that IC has of securing more ovals is if tin top attendance shrinks to the point that it is fiscally necessary for them to open these venues back up so the owners can pay their bills.

    • That is a real head scratcher isn’t it? The incessant bitching from oval fans about the schedule and every year there is more and more shiny in the stands.

  3. Nascar’s problem is not ovals or a trend away from auto racing. I know many diehards who left when the Chase was introduced, considering it to be the gimmick it is. That was the start of the decline. Nascar has also ceased to be fan friendly. The latest and greatest of these was slamming their own fans over the Confederate flag. Millions do not share the left wing view of the flag as representing racism, but of freedom and Southern heritage. That includes a whole lot of traditional Nascar fans who live in the South. I’ve noticed a real drop in attendance after that debacle.

    The truth is that attendance at road courses are not really much different that the ovals. Long Beach is the exception for road courses, just as Indy is the exception for ovals. Its a perception thing, but one that is promoted by the league. Occasionally a new street course comes on, supported by municipal money, and the initial crowd is larger as its a new thing. But by year 2 or 3 the newness fades away and usually so does the race.

    Finally there is a drive to do away with ovals in Indy car. It goes back to the CART days before the split. Many of the same people are still involved in Indycar that were at that time. So its probably not surprising. I watched them kill the Kentucky race and they did the same with Milwaukee, Fontana and many other tracks but the constant change in dates on the schedule.

    Milwaukee is the perfect example. Independent ownership so not affected by Nascar. Crowds rising every year in spite of constant changes in the schedule. Enjoyable racing. And now its gone.

    The fact that most of the ride buyers also come from a road racing background also moves ownership in that direction.

    Fact is CART failed using this approach, and precious few if any road racing leagues succeed in the US. This will be no different.

  4. I like the idea of a mix of ovals and twisties, it’s what differentiates Indycar from other racings series and has strong historical ties.

    I look forward to them racing in PHX and am disappointed that they didn’t have the time, money or interest to grow the business in Milwaukee. Iowa is consistently the most fun race of the year. On the other hand, I’d rather see them race at COTA than in Ft. Worth.

    Off-topic: I hope Indycar never gets so desperate for ratings that they become Demolition Derby.

  5. jpindycar Says:

    I’m not as concerned about ovals going away as much as I was three years ago. We can count butts in seats as one measure for concern, but the measure that is on their side are TV ratings. I don’t have exact numbers but throwing out Indy and not comparing abc races to nbcsn races ovals substantially out draw twisties on TV. This is,likely the infusion of nascar eyeballs but none the less the ratings points matter. They are what may make a renewal of TV contacts in the future possible. The business model may need to change for them so that tracks don’t suffer from providing tv eyeballs without likelihood of gate compensation. Many often say that with a event sponsor any oval is possible, and it will become indycar’s responsibility to translate larger tv ratings on ovals to event sponsorships for them. That’s the formula it seems worked in getting PHX back on the schedule though not all details have been released.

    Ovals will remain as they are the factor most likely make the tv package viable.

    • Perhaps the best of your good points here is that if the IndyCar emphasis on doing things to boost TV ratings continues, then “the business model may need to change for them so that tracks don’t suffer from providing TV eyeballs without the likelihood of gate compensation.” To schedule a Milwaukee race for 4 PM on a Sunday (and now Iowa) for TV reasons has a very real negative impact on a promoter’s chance of making money.

  6. I wrote a big ol’ comment and the battery died on the laptop literally seconds before I posted and poof…….gone.

    I had 3 reasons for why this oval disparity is happening:

    1)1996- irregardless of what the naysayers say , or which side you were on, it is still affecting the ICS today and the degree is often underestimated how much it pissed people off.

    2)The Economy – it has been flat-lining for almost 8 straight years.

    3)The millennials-this is the toughest one of them all for me. If you do not want to go get your drivers license the DAY you turn 16 something is seriously wrong with you. Every day, more millennials are influencing the future direction of motorsports and the forecast is not looking good..

    • Chris Lukens Says:

      Point 1 – Any fan that is still carping after almost 20 years is not a race fan. They are a fan of carping.
      Point 2 – You are absolutely correct.
      Point 3 – I’ll agree somewhat. Millennials are not rushing out to buy cars or houses.
      I think that is explained by point 2. But there is a somewhat sizable group of millennial motor heads out there. Just look at the crowds at these events.

      Import Drag racing – some of these guys are getting 500 – 600 HP out of small import motors.
      RallyCross – Ken Block YouTube videos have millions of viewers
      Drifting ( which I still don’t under stand )
      Monster trucks
      Stadium Moto-Cross

      They’re out there, we just can’t seem to reach them.

      • I will respectfully disagree with you on point #1. There is a limited fanbase out there and it is getting smaller and more diversified every day. When it happened, those fans left and many never came back. There was another series with roots that began in the South , that was positioning itself to explode with unprecedented growth and were more than happy to welcome in those fans with open arms and they did just that.

    • The way things seem to be heading, in the future it will be the cars that get driver’s licenses. That will free up those who will then be just passengers to have more time for texting and tweeting.

  7. I can’t believe that Bruton Smith would not want IndyCar at his Kentucky track. He seems to be all business and there apparently is success with the series at his Texas Track. But, what do I know? I only know that the Nashville Superspeedway won’t be back.

    • I was at the last race at Kentucky. I want to say 2011 when Ed Carpenter won driving with Sara Fisher’s team. Let me put it this way, there were 3 of us and we had our own section in turn 4 to ourselves and I had my own personal beer cart. I am not kidding, I may have purchased the only beers from that particular beer cart all day. That day was memorable for me because of how truly sad it was. To witness a pretty damn good race and to look around at the grandstands and see so many empty seats.

      • Why do you think that race fans weren’t there? By the way, I saw the race on television and enjoyed watching Ed win.

        • I was a tourist at that time moved to Louisville a year later, and I heard there was another major event (football) going on in the Cincinnati area the same weekend. Whatever the case, that was the last IC event there. Up to that point the date equity was not consistent either which does not help.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    While ovals do face some unique challenges compared to road and street tracks (location, poor reputation with some, etc.), their biggest struggle is one they share with all types of tracks and most of the series schedule, the general lack of Indycar fans in a given area outside of the central Midwest.

    I will continue to contend that the Indycar fans who complain about the lack of ovals put their money where their mouth is and attend oval races that one could reasonably expect them too. Though their shrillness makes them seem like a numerous hoarde who won’t put up or shut up, there really just aren’t enough of them. It is a similar story, too, for road racing fans who clamor for COTA, Laguna Seca, Portland, Watkins Glen, etc.

    I also contend that Indycar needs to find ways to draw fans at permanent tracks, especially ovals, because they will be the most stable and best equipped outlets for hosting races in the United States for years to come.

    The schedule attrition over the last 15 years of American open wheel racing is absolutely staggering. Between the IRL/Indycar and CART/Champcar, I count 20 Ovals, 11 Road Courses, and 11 Street/Temporary Circuits that hosted Indycars in the last 15 years but no longer do. 42 different tracks, of all types, in only 15 years. That says a lot of things, but the loudest of them is that we need more fans.

  9. I have to give Miles credit for securing the Phoenix race. I thought there was a serious risk of only having 3 ovals left, but Miles managed to rescue Pocono and secure Phoenix, so that’s good. In terms of issues with fans at ovals, I think the biggest problem with attendance is simply geographic. A lot of the ovals are not located in the best spot to get fans to go to them. Fontana, Pocono, Chicagoland, Kentucky, Loudon ect. are not the most accessible venues for sports in America. NFL/NCAA/NBA/MLB/MLS ect. all have their stadiums in or very close to major cities, but most major race tracks are 45 minutes to 2 hours away from major cities.

    Road course attendance is easier to fake than oval attendance, and the street courses live off of government money. If you look at the road courses, the most successful ones are ones which have a dedicated fanbase. Road America, Barber, Laguna Seca (?), and Mid Ohio can basically get people to go to anything that races there. Indycar, historic cars, NASCAR, sports cars, touring cars, WSBK, Moto America, MotoGP, whatever it is, there are a decent number of fans that like the track enough to go to whatever races there.

    What really has hurt oval attendance (as well as the desirability of open wheel to ISC/SMI) is the fall of the season tickets for NASCAR. When NASCAR was at it’s height, to get tickets to most tracks you needed to buy season tickets. Thus, the tracks had to have other forms of racing at the track, and people had tickets to those races. The market for season tickets has collapsed (economy+lack of interest) so there’s less incentive for ISC/SMI to have Indycar, and it’s harder to get people out there.

    Indycar ovals also have a value/fun issue. They’re great races, but they historically were rather short (200-300 miles, which I loved, btw), and do not have a lot of support races. Asking people to travel long distances to a rather short race with minimal other entertainment options is a bad idea, and the attendance at a number of tracks reflects that issue. Some of the road and street courses fix that issue with a ton of support races and/or double headers. If Indycar were smart they’d find a way to get more support races for ovals (roval racing for PWC?) but until/unless that happens the issue will remain.

    Does attendance matter to TV fans? I don’t think so. However, I will say that I’ve been to a lot of college football games this year, and watched many more on TV. The attendance at these games, as well as most stick and ball sports, blows every Indycar race except the Indy 500 and Long Beach out of the water. So when we judge racing attendance that should be kept in mind.

    In terms of long term sustainability, road racing series in America do not have a good track record. Champcar, AMA, ALMS, Trans Am, Can-Am ect. all were a big deal for a while, and then died. For all there problems, the oval focused series tend to survive, and the Indy 500 has made a nice comeback since 2008. Even F1, MotGP, and World Superbike (WSBK) have had long stretches without ANY race in America. I’m not sure how Indycar without any ovals outside of the 500 would do better than those aforementioned series, unless the 500 itself is enough to sustain the series.

    • One other thought, I will say I think Indycar’s road and street courses have an opportunity for broader interest. NASCAR fans have become so bored by the majority of races that the road races have become very popular among most NASCAR fans. Indycar’s put on some very good road/street races this year, and if that continues in the future, the road races might be useful in “flipping” some NASCAR fans. The races need to be more like Toronto/Mid Ohio this year, less like the Indy GP.

  10. Perhaps the Trumpster can MAKE OVALS GREAT AGAIN!!!

    • billytheskink Says:

      That must be why Korbin Forrister keeps putting Trump’s name on his NASCAR truck. He’s sure not making Forrister great again…

  11. Mark Wick Says:

    I don’t remember the exact year, but I do remember in the late 80s or early 90s walking through the pits at IMS on a practice day and mentioning to the person with me tht someday, within 40 years, it IMS still stood, it would be a historic relic like the Coloseum in rome, because there wouldn’t be cars to race. racing if it existed at all would be in such a different form that the track would be irrelevent.
    I still watch Indycar with great interest, and like all three types of courses. I like the need for all participants to at least be decent in one kind of track and very good in the other two to contend for a championship.
    I didn’t really like what I predicted that day, but I don’t see any reason to change my mind.

  12. First, the attendance comparison between ovals and twisties is tiresome and specious. Twisty promoters claim there are 239,192 people at every race, just spread out all over so you can’t see them on TV. I see a lot of open aluminum on twistie races but those fans are just on the ground, walking around, allegedly. 20k at a twisty is a GREAT CROWD but the same number at an oval is a DISASTER. Belle Isle. I rest my case. Belle Isle brings up the second point: it’s all about sponsorship. If an IndyCar race has a presenting sponsor, it’s in good shape. Belle Isle is going to happen even if eight people show up to watch it. If no presenting sponsor, death rattle mode. The inability of IndyCar races to attract and retain presenting sponsors on ovals is a leading cause of their demise. The inability to draw sponsors gets back to the horrid ROI involved in sponsoring IndyCar stuff, which gets back to the lack of fans in person and on TV. Why the lack of fans? I think one reason is the lack of differentiation from IndyCar and NASCAR ovals. If the product and the price are similar, you’ll go with the name brand (NASCAR). You’re saying IndyCar is a lot different. How would fans know that? IndyCar does not promote/advertise its unique selling points (more racing, less contact, less bullshit, fewer gimmicks, higher speeds). The atmosphere at NASCAR ovals is better just because there are more people. NASCAR also puts a lot more into the off-track stuff at the venue than IndyCar. Fourth, when you buy a ticket for a twisty, you get about 10 races on the track from various types of cars. Buy a ticket to an oval you get two races, maybe. I also reject the ISC et al hates IndyCar argument. ISC et al love profit. IndyCar doesn’t generate any for them. If you show ISC, NASCAR, SMI the ROI, they’ll be glad to have you race there. Finally, the total lack of brand building by IndyCar outside the Indy 500 is killing the series. NASCAR has a very strong brand in that it immediately brings things and drivers to mind for a huge number of people in American. IndyCar brand: the 500. Brands are built bit by bit over the years. The neglect of the ICS brand building outside the Indy 500 is a huge obstacle to it’s non-Indianapolis success.

    • Oh, and, yeah, I think IndyCar is headed for a Indy 500 and twisties schedule, and that could be a good thing. The twistie market in this country is virtually uncontested. There’s only F1. It will take brains and work to build the twisty fan base to sustain the series, but I think it could be done and honestly is probably the smartest play for IndyCar, even though I’m an oval guy.

  13. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Generally, it’s my nature to be a ‘step-back, look at the big-picture’ type of person. I like looking at trends over decades, not years or months. Maybe I should’ve been an actuary, but OMG,THE MATHS!!!

    I have noted a few long-range views to consider/debate:

    In thinking about the long history of major, top-level oval racing, it seems two themes drove the public’s interest in them – ever-increasing speed and the potential for “mayhem”.

    For Indycar, we reached a point in the early 90s where it became increasingly expensive to go marginally faster, when also decreasing the potential for mayhem became important for numerous reasons.

    In short, the attendance(/attraction) to big ovals (over 1 mile) are highly unlikely to ever be what they once were, simply because there is largely no taste for it anymore for numerous reasons including two generations of adult consumers who don’t really see any value in this form of racing. That’s not down to poor marketing or promotion or a better formula, it simply is a reflection of changing society.

    Roads and streets have an entirely different set of factors that create appeal, to a largely different set of consumers from ovals – most of which have little to do with the actual on-track action. Ovals are the inverse.

    To me, the angle of Indycar should always be showcasing the drivers as the fastest and most versatile in the world (which I largely believe). So easy to say, harder to show and prove.

    To do this, the must maintain a good variety of tracks, which they have been quite good at in recent history.

    Autoracing as we know it is on the decline worldwide. Simply a sign of the times I believe. Cars are one of several ‘transportation options’ and not seen with the passion the once were, as a primary element to personal freedom and affluence.

    Indycar is a niche sport. The niche of people who are attracted to it is in decline. It’s possible it won’t survive the next 20 years.

    One thing is certain, change is constant. ‘Adapt or die’ is the model of a universe where change is constant. Indycar is no different.

  14. I can’t say I disagree with any of you. Times are a changing and what people do with their free time now is not how I have spent mine for most of my life. I am just glad I saw the light in 2012 and began attending races. Now I am trying to make up for lost time.

    IndyCar is totally missing out in its marketing. Play up the drivers. I don’t pay too much attention to NASCAR, but I do know a bit about many of its drivers. They just do an excellent job of promotion. We don’t!! Just saw that Ryan Hunter-Reay is going to participate again in the Race of Champions. Check that off the list. Maybe all of us need to focus on the next generation and I am not talking about millennials. Not giving up on them (and I do bring at least one with me to Long Beach), but am looking out for even younger folks.

    And oh, BTW, not all of us in Southern California are wine and cheese people. I have met very dedicated and knowledgeable racing fans at LB the last three years.

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