Will Ovals Ever Make A Comeback?
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.