How Will IndyCar Replace Phoenix?

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Last week, we got confirmation on what had been widely speculated for a while – that the Verizon IndyCar Series would not be returning to ISM Raceway at Phoenix for the foreseeable future. Was anyone really surprised by this? Since IndyCar’s return to Phoenix three years ago, the crowds have been abysmal and the racing hasn’t been much better.

I saw bigger crowds for an open test back in the old IRL days at Nashville Superspeedway than what Phoenix was drawing for their night races. We can lament all we want about losing this historic venue that was built for Indy cars in the early sixties, but the truth of the matter is – IndyCar fans didn’t support it.

It’s the same thing for the Milwaukee Mile. When Milwaukee fell off of the schedule after the 2009 season, fans (myself included) moaned and groaned about what a travesty it was that this historic race that was part of the DNA for IndyCar, was no longer on the schedule. Michael Andretti came to the rescue and tried everything short of giving away free tickets with a ten-dollar bill stapled to them, for five years. Still, people did not come.

After the 2015 race, Michael started thinking with his head instead of his heart and he pulled the plug. The Mile has been dormant since. Many people blame it on the Fair Board and the State of Wisconsin, who actually owns the track, for making it a non-profitable venture. Those factors don’t help, but the Fair Board nor the State of Wisconsin didn’t put up roadblocks to keep fans from attending. Fans just didn’t show up, plain and simple. They had five years to get out and support the race at Milwaukee and they didn’t do it.

I know many people, some of you who read this site, went every year to support Michael Andretti and his efforts to save The Mile. But where were the thousands who begged to bring back The Mile? They stayed home, that’s where they were. Michael Andretti put his money where his mouth was, but most of the fans in the Milwaukee area did not. If you were one of those that showed up at Milwaukee from 2011-15 – thank you! If you live near Milwaukee and were clamoring for The Milwaukee Mile to come back and you stayed home, shame on you!

In full disclosure, I didn’t go either. But I don’t live that close to Milwaukee. You’ll notice that I do go to nearby Road America every year. One reason for that is it is three full days of non-stop racing. Some of the later years at Milwaukee, it was strictly a two-day IndyCar show with few or no support races at all. It’s not worth it for me to drive or fly that far for a few IndyCar sessions over a two-day period.

Speaking of Road America, for years we kept hearing how everyone wanted Road America back on the schedule. When it reappeared on the 2016 schedule, my fear was that this would be another classic case of fans wishing for something that they wouldn’t support. Fortunately, I was wrong. Fans have turned out in droves and Road America just extended their contract with IndyCar for another three years.

But getting back to Phoenix, it’s a shame that fans in that area didn’t support it more. I am no fan of ISC, which owns so many of the tracks that IndyCar has failed at – but in this case, I don’t blame them or IndyCar for not continuing. It just didn’t work.

But now what?

I’ve read several suggestions on what track will take the place of Phoenix, but none have been great. I saw one idea that IndyCar should use that date to race at Road Atlanta. That date is the first weekend in April. Keep in mind that IndyCar has a very successful race at nearby Barber Motorsports Park at the end of April. Birmingham and Atlanta are only three hours apart. I don’t think George Barber would be very happy if IndyCar scheduled another natural terrain road course event that would be separated by only three weeks and three hours, and I wouldn’t blame him. The folks at Barber may be more agreeable to Atlanta Motor Speedway hosting an IndyCar race in early April, but the month of April is wet in the south.

Others have suggested that IndyCar race on the road course at Daytona. I just don’t see that happening at all. Others have suggested Laguna Seca. That one is a possibility, but it doesn’t thrill me.

The thing is, the Phoenix date needs to be filled with…an oval. The void left by Phoenix leaves only five ovals on the schedule. IndyCar needs more, not less. The problem facing IndyCar is that they can only race at venues that want them there. That limits the field quite a bit.

In the past couple of decades, a few ovals have been shuttered. Nazareth Speedway sits in ruins, the property for Nashville Superspeedway is in the process of being converted for industrial warehouse use. The track is still there, but is most likely doomed to the wrecking ball. The stands at Pikes Peak International Raceway have been dismantled and it is now only used for club racing and USAC Silver Crown events.

If IndyCar wants to replace Phoenix using that date, it needs to be in a warm climate. Homestead is always there, but it didn’t draw well in an era when ovals drew better than they do now. However, if you listened to Trackside the other night, Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee seem to think Homestead is the most likely replacement for Phoenix.

Charlotte Motor Speedway used to host races in the old IRL, but after three spectators were fatally injured when a tire flew into the stands in 1999 – they’ve never been back. Could that be a possibility, now that Humpy Wheeler no longer works there?

Then there is Las Vegas. I’m not opposed to going there due to the emotions surrounding the bad memories of Dan Wheldon losing his life there. Bad memories didn’t prevent the return to Fontana after Greg Moore was fatally injured or when Justin Wilson lost his life at Pocono. But I am opposed to going back if it’s the same situation that could produce the pack racing we saw in those fifteen laps in 2011. If a lot of testing was done and if improvements had been made to the fencing (which I don’t think has been done), I wouldn’t mind returning to Las Vegas.

I still think New Hampshire is worth another shot. The weather ruined the crowd and the race, the one time they went back in 2011. Give them a three year deal to see if IndyCar oval racing can work in that part of the country. But if they do, it can’t be in early April. They’re still clearing away snow at that point.

But whatever they replace Phoenix with, needs to be supported…by us. We can’t sit around and hope someone else goes to the races. We fans need to do our part too. Quite honestly, I’m very worried about Pocono. I’ve been to the last two IndyCar races at Pocono and loved them. I’m trying to see if I can still work it out with my work schedule this year to go again – mainly because I’m afraid this may be the final year for that great track and I’ll never get to go again. Why? Because the fans aren’t going. A venue can sell out all of their luxury suites, but if Joe Six-pack doesn’t show up – it casts a bad light on the event and the bottom line.

First and foremost, the tracks exist to make money. We’d like to think they are there to preserve racing history, but if they can’t turn a profit after a few years, unprofitable races are going to removed from their schedule very quickly.

So I don’t know how or if IndyCar is going to replace the IndyCar event at ISM Raceway, but if you want my vote – it’s any oval in early April.

George Phillips

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31 Responses to “How Will IndyCar Replace Phoenix?”

  1. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Why does Indycar need to replace Phoenix with an oval? Nothing is worse than a race with poor attendance. Unfortunately other than Indy, Gateway and maybe Iowa there always seems to be way more empty seats at ovals. Indycar needs to go where fans turn out. Ovals May be the heritage of the series but they don’t don’t have to be its future if the fans say don’t bother. Indycar needs to go where it’s wanted. Homestead sure isn’t the answer!

  2. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Ovals can draw good crowds though, they just have to be in the right market and be promoted well. I was at Gateway last year and the place was packed to the rafters and full of energy.

    I’ve seen Homestead and, surprisingly, Darlington being discussed as possible replacements. I’m not sure either of those will draw much of a crowd. Personally, I’d like to see Kentucky have another shot. It’s been reconfigured and repaved since IndyCar’s last visit, it’s only a few hours from Indy and St. Louis and we know those fans go to the races. I don’t think it drew very good crowds back then, but maybe it would do better now. I attended the final race there and don’t remember a huge crowd but do remember the race was pretty good. I’d certainly attend again.

  3. James T Suel Says:

    We ,or Indycar needs another oval. I don’t think Homestead will draw. If someone has the money to promote a race at a good oval ,it can win. Gateway is the perfect plan to follow. A lot of so called fans have never returned since the split. That’s sad but if I had the money I would do it.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    I am sick and tired of you consistently blaming Milwaukee Mile fans for the demise of that race. Please STOP IT! I am going to ask you this once again: What do you think attendance at IMS would be if every year the race was held on a different date as was the case at Milwaukee during the Andretti promotions. What do you think attendance would be at IMS if every year the starting time for the Indy500 was later and later and later in the day as was the case at Milwaukee during the Andretti promotions. I have asked these questions here before and have never received a response. Much of the large crowd at RA these days consist of former Milwaukee Mile fans. There are lots of reasons for that, but two of the most important are that fans can expect a late June race each year with a early starting time. The RA promoter is one of the best in the business and those are things he wisely insisted upon before signing any contract with IndyCar. Perhaps Michael Andretti was not able to do that for some reason. I think you would find it interesting and illuminating if you were able to arrange an interview with the RA promoter George Bruggenheis during your next trip up here and ask him his opinion as to why the Milwaukee Mile race failed.

    • Simmer down, Ron. I’m not pointing my finger at you, because I know you went every year and paid good money to go and support The Mile. You do bring up a good point on the revolving date, which was a definite factor. I think Mark Miles, and Jay Frye especially, understand the importance of date equity more than the previous group. Unfortunately, Jay Frye didn’t come on board until near the end of the Andretti years at Milwaukee. But that’s not the only reason that fans stayed away in droves. And I pick on Milwaukee because that’s a place that everyone was up in arms about when it dropped off. If one percent of the people that screamed about “No Milwaukee” had shown up in any of those years, it would have been a packed house. I also point the finger at myself. I screamed, yet I didn’t go for the reasons I stated up above.

      I think a couple of other things have happened – I think the new aluminum grandstands that offer no shade and force people to bake in the sun is a deterrent. Late starting times discouraged people as well as lack of track activity. But whatever the case, just like Phoenix – there were a lot of fans screaming that insisted these historic venues be put back on the schedule, and they didn’t show up when they were.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        Yes. Certainly the new aluminum grandstands with no roof were a factor as well as no support races. Passive resistance was also involved. It was a way for Milwaukee Mile fans to tell IndyCar and the TV suits pulling their strings (regarding race dates and starting times) : “You Stink!” Never-the-less, I will once again pose the question to you of what is your opinion of what would have happened to attendance at the Indy500 if the date and starting times were changed every year. Would the fans be blamed for that?

        • Just so I will not be accused of avoiding your hypothetical question – of course it would affect it. I wish that Milwaukee was ALWAYS the weekend after Indianapolis, but that has been in flux going as far back as 1992. Then you had Champ Car running their only oval of the season at night at Milwaukee and then you had the confusing times around 2006 or so, when Champ Car raced there on the traditional after Indianapolis date and then IndyCar, which actually ran the Indianapolis 500, ran there in late July. It’s all a muddled mess as to why The Mile didn’t work.

          But to your point of Mile fans telling IndyCar and TV suits ‘You stink”…who did that hurt in the long run?

  5. billytheskink Says:

    The thought of Homestead doesn’t seem to be thrilling many folks, but I’m rather curious to see the current car race there. Would I attend? That’s a fer piece for me, but I would certainly say I would like to. I do think there is some opportunity for Indycar at tracks, especially ovals, that host only one major racing event per year and Homestead is very much one of those tracks.

    Atlanta, Darlington, Kentucky, and now New Hampshire are others in this same boat. Granted, Fontana is as well and that didn’t quite work (for debatable reasons, I’d argue). Of course, so was Gateway, if you want to get technical, and that has gone well thus far. New Hampshire would be intriguing, I think, because it has the potential for built-in support races with the NASCAR modifieds (now headlining a big NASCAR regional series shindig in what was the September Cup date).

    Indycar, of course, doesn’t HAVE to replace Phoenix with another oval. I would be happy to see any healthy event replace Phoenix, regardless of track type, because the series needs healthy events. However, I would caution against buying completely in to the mentality of only “going where you’re wanted” because we might find out that where Indycar isn’t presently much “wanted” at as many places as we might like to think. A commitment to building healthy events at a variety of different tracks is the best path to a thriving series, I would argue, a series that more folks and tracks “want”.

  6. SkipinSC Says:

    As a self-avowed “ovalista,” I think that rather than mourning and trying to replace Phoenix, we might pay attention to the future of Pocono. I have never been there, but then my home life precludes me from going anywhere but Indy, and only there in occasional doses.

    I have long maintained that asking fans to go traveling to a relatively remote venue for a single race is folly. Why is the series not running every step of the MRTI ladder at Pocono? Has anyone ever considered running with sports cars there to create a real WEEKEND of racing rather than simply practice, qualifying, and a race for IndyCar?

    I think that filling the schedule with events would definitely be an inducement for fans to go to, camp, spend the weekend, and essentially let their lives revolve around a FESTIVAL of racing. Being brutally honest, most of the oval races NOT held in Indianapolis cannot afford to stand alone. Maybe if you can prove that theory at Pocono, someone might think of trying it at Michigan.

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      Absolutely is a deal-maker or breaker for me and several fans I travel with, whether or not there are ‘value-added’ events for the weekend. That is one thing that makes Pocono a tough call for those of us who would perhaps drive 8-10 hours one-way to see a classic venue on an annual basis.

      • Yea it’s probably going to break it for me again this year. I’d like to bring my kids, but there’s nothing on track all day until the very late green flag. Which means by the time you can get out of the parking lot, its late, and VERY late by the time you get home. I know I’m not the only one, and it’s directly affecting attendance, probably significantly.

        If they insist theres no way to have support races (which is crap, run the super trucks back and forth), you gotta drop the green flag at noon for us! TV schedule be damned; low attendance=race gets dropped=no race to show on TV.

  7. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Along with several others already noted, shooting for the most “healthy” event possible.

    I have another suggestion – COTA.
    Last week of March this year at COTA was the Pirelli World Challenge.

    COTA lost IMSA for 2018 (to Mid-Ohio) and I’m sure if it could be worked to have a PWC/Indycar double-dip weekend in late-March, that could be quite marketable for COTA.

    Only major issue I can think of would be the Mouth of the South – Mr. Gossage and his insistence that everything Indycar does harms his precious event. He’s negotiating for the future so I’m sure he’d add language in the contract to not allow it if Indycar wants to race at Texas (another venue that looks sparse even with a crowd of 40,000).

    If Indycar could keep Texas and add COTA not closer than 10 weeks prior or following the Texas race, they might have something. Otherwise, it will always be Gossage’s TMS vs COTA instead of cross-promoting and working together.

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      Dover Downs (Delaware/East Coast and former owners of Nashville) is another (non-ISC, non-SMI) track that might appreciate Indycar, but early spring in the mid-atlantic-north is a crapshoot with weather.

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      And honestly, I would be fine with Indy being the first oval of the season IF they continue to put Indy testing/ROP on May 1st (ish) as it happened to this year due to previous weather postponements.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I would be thrilled with COTA (or any race within day-trip driving distance of me, because I WILL be there) personally.

      I will say that Gossage’s distaste for COTA is understandable, as they have held major events head-to-head with TMS on several occasions (NASCAR-F1, NASCAR-MotoGP, NASCAR-Vintage racing, IndyCar-RallyCross). I’m not sure it is splitting the crowd in the bleachers that concerns Gossage as much as sponsorship and hospitality potentially splitting between the events. He can probably be placated, he was when the series ran in Houston, but at what cost?

      I have, frankly, been quite disappointed with COTA’s ability to draw a crowd outside of the F1 weekend (and they do promote those races). That does not mean that it is not worth a shot, I would love to see it and would be there in a heartbeat, but I do not think it is not the slam dunk that some seem to believe it would be. It would take effort just like any other new race.

      I would hate to risk an event at TMS that seems to have found at least a stable place for something untested at COTA and wind up losing both. Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen and that we do get and keep both.

      • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

        Interesting. I hadn’t known about the direct conflicts with Eddie. Although it wouldn’t surprise me, the conflict may also be deeper than most people realize. That’s the problem with Gossage though, always crying wolf.

  8. Yannick Says:

    After Randy Bernard had phased out every ISC track from the calendar during his tenure at the helm of the series because ISC seemingly didn’t promote their IndyCar events near well enough (a move which the fan in me supported), Jay Frye has slowly been bringing IndyCar back to ISC tracks, whilst ISC’s parent company NASCAR has since bought Iowa Speedway. You cannot tell me the downsizing of crowds at Iowa has not got anything to do with that change in ownership.
    Now, both ISC tracks which Jay Frye has brought back to IndyCar’s schedule have failed.
    So I’d like to suggest IndyCar better try a track not owned by ISC next for the vacant calendar slot in early April. You knowledgeable fans on here know for yourself which tracks are ruled out by this as possible replacements.

    At this point, I feel it is less important which track type IndyCars run at in early April of next year but rather that they run a race then at all.

    Also, I feel IndyCar should better have a possible oval replacement for Iowa waiting in the wings if the need be, in case attendance continues to decline because Iowa Speedway is owned by the biggest fish in the pond now which runs a rival series.

    Has anybody talked to Mike Lanigan about a possible return for the Grand Prix of Houston in early April, weather permitting? I confess that this track was my least favourite and it was no big loss when it fell off the schedule but I remember the sponsor would have continued, given a better date. Maybe, now there is an opening for it?
    Jaye Frye surely must be utilizing his old adress book from his days in NASCAR when looking for a rather short-term replacement because that’s who he knows. Yet, ISC and IndyCar have got a history of producing events that haven’t been too successful in the long run, to say the least.

    • SkipinSC Says:

      As I look at Iowa, I am ever-curious why the Hell they’re running that race on a Sunday afternoon instead of Saturday night.

      • billytheskink Says:

        It is said that NBC prefers the Sunday afternoon time slot, the track is on record as wanting a Saturday night race.

        • Ron Ford Says:

          History repeating itself. The TV suits did the same thing to the Millwaukee Mile race and we all know how that turned out.

        • Yannick Says:

          Strangely, NBC does not seem to have that problem with the Texas race. Now that the NBC contract is in place, it would be the right time for IndyCar and the race promoter to try and get Iowa back to Saturday night.

          Even as a fan from a foreign country who can only watch IndyCar races on a screen, it feels strange to have Iowa not on a Saturday night. In fact, just as strange as it felt for Milwaukee to not be on a Sunday afternoon.

          If NBC wants to present a good product at Iowa, they should get it back to Saturday night ASAP.

          Regarding the race in April, I get the feeling it will most likely be Homestead, even if it’s just a one-off / placeholder for next year until Mexico City is ready.

  9. “but if you want my vote – it’s any oval in early April.”
    well, you said ANY:
    Richmond?

  10. Cool Cat Says:

    Why not look at going to Memphis?. They have a nice track and also have the capability to increase the bleacher area.

  11. I think there are some great ideas for an oval race. I emailed Robin Miller about his thoughts about oval tracks. Luckily the mail bag last week actually had a few tracks I was thinking about. Darlington use to hold AAA and Usac races back in the 50s and the shape of the track in the turns can “almost” remind someone of Trenton. If they ever raced at the Lady In Black they could always make that race a throwback just as NASCAR does. Bring in old commentators of the past, vintage race graphics on screen etc.

    The pairing of Indycar with the Whelen Modified Tour at New Hampshire has been a long history between both series. A return to that scheduling would be welcome for us in the Northeast.

    Another track I was thinking about a possibility was Martinsville. Yes, I know it would probably be a disaster. There are clips of iracing Indycars there already on YouTube. However, it’s a flat short track where the driver would be the ultimate tool for success. The driver needs to read traffic and have excellent throttle control. It would probably seem like a Sprint Car race with the drivers racing for position and handling lap traffic. I think it would be interesting. Indycar should hold an All-Star event like the Nissan challenge at Tamiami Park during the 80s to test new venues and ovals. Even test them at IRP when the Silver crown series is in town.

  12. tonelok Says:

    I read a comment on Racer.com from a local fan that the promotion for the Phoenix race was almost non-existent. How much promotion responsibility for this race lies on the track itself and IndyCar? I’m no genius but if nobody knows the race is happening then how do they expect people to show up?

  13. I hate to see Phoenix come off the schedule. I have seen a lot of comments on the other racing sites by people living out there that promotion of the race was poor. Ovals need to be the priority for Indycar at this point. If Indycar put 1/2 of the effort into ovals they do into road racing, ovals would not be a problem. Indy fans have not suddenly become road race fans only. The owners, perhaps.

    Phoenix has to be replaced with another oval. Hopefully one with date consistency and at the right time of the year for the venue. What was done by the league to Kentucky and Milwaukee (and some others) was almost criminal.

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