Should IndyCar Give Up On The Northeast?
It’s a shame that the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season is already underway and there is still a great deal of uncertainty whether one of its scheduled events will actually take place. The Grand Prix of Boston scheduled for September 4th, is still dealing with resistance from a lot of the local residents that flat-out do not want the event to happen. Personally, I think it’ll happen – at least for this year. But after that, I think all bets are off.
Although the huge population in the Northeast seems to dictate that a series that is desperate for new fans should try and go there, I’m not sure that the Northeast is a ripe breeding ground for potentially new open-wheel fans.
Pocono Raceway sits about two hours from New York City and Philadelphia, the largest and sixth largest US markets. Yet the Tricky Triangle has been struggling to get twenty thousand people to attend a five-hundred mile IndyCar race there. My gut feeling is that if attendance does not dramatically improve there this August, there is not much chance that Pocono will be on the 2017 schedule.
Pocono is not the only northeastern venue to struggle with IndyCar attendance. Whether or not it was due to weather conditions, the much anticipated IndyCar return to New Hampshire International Speedway after a thirteen year absence was a complete flop. Baltimore was a popular destination among the teams and fans that liked to travel, but most of the locals disliked the inconvenience it brought to the downtown area. Controversial politics and a failure to meet the promised economic upturn in the Inner Harbor brought an end to that race in 2013 after only a three year run.
How many remember what I considered one of the worst events to ever appear on the schedule – the Meadowlands Grand Prix? That event ran from 1984 through 1991. The first two years, it ran in the parking lot around Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey – just across the river from New York City. After disappointing attendance and drivers complaining about the tight circuit, the layout was changed to go around Brendan Byrne Arena and even incorporated an interstate interchange into the course. It was painful to watch on TV and was apparently just as bad in person. Plans to move it to Manhattan never materialized and the event died a merciful death.
Historic Watkins Glen International seemed like a perfect destination for IndyCar when they started racing there in 2005, considering its history with Formula One in the sixties and seventies. A shifting schedule and lack of date equity killed an event already struggling at the gate and the event dropped off of the schedule following the 2010 season.
In the IRL days, IndyCar raced at the Monster Mile in Dover, Delaware in front of small crowds. Although it was a mainstay on the USAC trail for Championship cars, Trenton International Speedway in Trenton, NJ stopped hosting Indy car races in 1979. It was closed in 1980 and demolished in favor of a UPS shipping facility.
I always enjoyed watching racing on the bullring in Nazareth, but as good as it looked on television – it must not have been a big draw locally. IndyCar stopped racing there in 2004. Roger Penske sold the track when he sold his portfolio of tracks to ISC in 1999. It was closed after the 2004 season.
No matter what decade or sanctioning body, open-wheel racing has been a tough sell in the Northeast. Lime Rock Park in Connecticut plays host to various series, but the 1.5 mile track is considered too tight for the bigger and faster Indy cars. It seems more suited as a club track and would probably not be a huge draw, anyway.
Whether they like to admit it or not, IndyCar is a Midwestern sport. Not only are their roots there, so is their fan base. That’s not to say they shouldn’t branch out to other areas – they should. NASCAR has its roots in the southeast. They’ve tested other markets – some with success, others not so much. NASCAR races seven times a year in the Northeast – twice at Dover, twice at Pocono, twice at New Hampshire and once a year at Watkins Glen. They have decent to good crowds, but none of these venues are what they would consider signature events.
While IndyCar still tries to force itself upon the Northeastern part of the US for obvious reasons, there are other markets where I think IndyCar would host bigger crowds event though they may not look as attractive to potential sponsors.
IndyCar has played well here in the South in what is perceived to be NASCAR country. Perhaps the south is just RACING country. If you want to call northern Kentucky the South, the crowds were decent at Kentucky. They were happy to have IndyCar until NASCAR started racing there. After that, they couldn’t get IndyCar off the Kentucky Speedway schedule fast enough.
Right here in Nashville, even though the concrete track is too narrow and tight for IndyCar and too far removed from downtown Nashville – the Firestone Indy 200 at Nashville Superspeedway always played to sellout or near sellout crowds. Three hours to the south of us in Birmingham, Barber Motorsports Park hosts one of the best attended events on the schedule.
I was in attendance that fateful evening in Charlotte in 1999, when three spectators lost their lives at the IRL race right in NASCAR’s backyard. Humpy Wheeler, the president of Charlotte Motor Speedway at that time, vowed that Indy cars would never race on their sacred oval ever again. It was not due to the crowd, which I remember being huge for an IRL event. Wheeler is now gone from CMS, but he has been correct so far. IndyCar has not raced there since.
If IndyCar wants to focus on large metropolitan areas, should they look to Atlanta one more time? Atlanta Motor Speedway is somewhat of a clone to Texas and Charlotte. They raced there in the early days of the IRL, but not to big crowds. Then again, Atlanta has a reputation of not being a great sports town. If they can get past that reputation, why not give Road Atlanta a look?
New Orleans was tried last year. The weather magnified faults with that track. That and owner/promoter disagreements made NOLA end up as a one-year experiment that didn’t work. But New Orleans is not a typical southern market. New Orleans is more like a foreign country that just happens to be geographically located in the Deep South. Their culture is vastly different from what I consider the traditional southern states.
Perhaps it’s time to look at Richmond again. Iowa has proven to be such a success as a short oval, with better promotion and solid date equity – Richmond could become a mainstay on the IndyCar schedule.
But there are other areas of the country that are much more neglected by IndyCar than the South. The Pacific Northwest is fertile ground for open-wheel racing. Despite the stereotype that everyone there cares too much for the environment to embrace motor racing, Portland and Vancouver always brought big crowds to their respective races.
I still maintain Colorado as a good market for IndyCar, and other than the stigma associated with the Dan Wheldon fatality in 2011 – I think Las Vegas would be a good venue provided there were some configuration changes made to the track and cars to prevent pack racing.
Last, but not least, I think that our friends north of the border in Canada are vastly overlooked. With established racing markets in Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver – you can’t tell me that Toronto is the only viable market for IndyCar. While that appears to be a great event, I would think there is room for more growth. It’s not like going to Brazil, China or Australia where few US companies have much of a presence. Most US companies that would be potential sponsors for IndyCar, also do a great deal of business in Canada. This is an area that actually seems to prefer open-wheel racing to stock car racing. It seems to me that IndyCar would want to tap into that more.
Anyway, I think you get my point. While the Northeastern US appears to be low hanging fruit with its immense population centers, there is not much of a history of long-term open-wheel success in that part of the country. It seems to me that IndyCar is beating its head against a wall trying to make a fit in the Northeast, when they could be making a bigger splash in smaller markets where they are actually wanted. Maybe it’s time to try something different.