This was written prior to the race at Iowa, which was equally as awesome and entertaining as Indianapolis, Texas, and Milwaukee.
More than any other subject, the issue with oval tracks on the IndyCar schedule has been the most contentious issue debated by far. Some fans demand more while there are fans that prefer the road course and street races. The fans that demand more ovals are an extremely vocal group. If all of them actually bought tickets to oval track races the series would have 30 races on the schedule with 20 of them being at 20 different oval tracks. But, over the years there has been a cold hard economic reality that ovals are money losers and plainly look bad on television.
Taking everything into consideration from the global economic meltdown, the growing stresses on the middle-class family, and Randy Bernard’s task of trying to keep the series from continuing to bleed money like a stuck pig, it is easy to see why the sport in general would have a tough time drawing fans. But, ovals have had an especially hard time. Long before Dan Wheldon’s accident at Las Vegas, ovals were an endangered species. Declining attendance and waning promoter interest had eliminated former staples from the schedule like Kentucky and Chicagoland. Even the famed Milwaukee Mile, brought back from the dead in 2011, was once again almost moth-balled until it was saved by Michael Andretti and his Andretti Sports Marketing group. But, even when the series was at Chicagoland for example, it was painful and embarrassing to see the mammoth stands built for NASCAR races virtually empty. It looked pitiful on television and made the sport seem as though it was on the verge of death. Fans in attendance had to feel odd as well. Instead of being surrounded by hordes of fans screaming and cheering for their favorite drivers, they sat lonely on vacant rows of seats. A pleasant, happy, and enthusiastic fan experience it certainly does not make.
The racing, although often times very exciting in practice, could be classified as “simple”. Of course racing is not easy or anyone could do it (see Milka Duno), but I recall Will Power in the Las Vegas Motor Speedway media center after qualifying saying that racing and qualifying at that track was, “brainlessly easy.” As a fan, I don’t think running at 220+ should ever be classified as easy, and if it really is that easy, then drastic changes should be made. The high-downforce, low-power combination led to drivers running flat out even at the smaller tracks with less banking like Milwaukee, New Hampshire, Richmond, and Iowa. Where is the skill in that?
Despite the new for 2012 Dallara DW12’s increased downforce and lower horsepower from the Chevy/Honda/Lotus engines, IndyCar finally started listening to (most) drivers and fans. Maybe it was the stellar Indianapolis 500, or the fence-talk surrounding Texas Motor Speedway, but IndyCar decided to lessen the amount of downforce on the cars for the oval races at Texas, Milwaukee, and now for Iowa as well. Surprising no one, the racing was spectacular at both Texas and Milwaukee. Drivers were earning their money as they kept the slipping, sliding cars off the walls and had to lift in the corners. Tires also lost grip the proper way through a run, and the resulting changes to the cars handling meant some cars were better at the beginning of a run and some were better at the end of a run. Drivers had to search for the perfect lines to scrape out last bit of speed from the cars with some running high lines, some running low, others weaving all over the place, and Takuma Sato (among others) finding the wall multiple times. Finally, racing the way it should be.
The outstanding racing on the ovals so far this year stands in stark contrast to the lackluster race at St. Pete, and the Belle Isle Grand Prix in Detroit. One of the most amazing things about IndyCar is that it crosses all disciplines of racing, minus dirt. Drivers must tackle road courses, street courses, abandoned airports, high-banked ovals, flat ovals, and superspeedways. To be a contender in IndyCar, a driver has to be well-rounded and excel at everything, so as a fan, I appreciate all of the races. But after seeing the past 3 oval races, it is painful to attempt to enjoy a race like the one in Detroit. Street races are successful because they have a festive atmosphere that is difficult, if not impossible to attain at a track like Texas Motor Speedway. It is easy to understand their draw. It is similar to comparing a downtown baseball stadium to one built in a huge parking lot in a suburb of a large city. At a downtown stadium, fans can wander from bar to bar before and after a game, take in the sights and sounds of the city, and enjoy the atmosphere. A park not located downtown is different. Walking across a barren parking lot to a mammoth structure sprouting in the middle just doesn’t create the same vibe. That’s why most cities are constructing sporting venues in downtown areas. There is just more to do to entertain people. I get it.
For ovals to succeed, fans have to attend the races. Fans can’t scream for a race to return and then not show up. Asses have to be in seats paid for by the fan. But, for fans to want to go, they have to be entertained by the product on the track. IndyCar is getting that part right by leaps and bounds right now. Texas is a prime example. The NASCAR races at TMS were parades not unlike the IndyCar race at Belle Isle. Cue the naps! In contrast, the IndyCar race at TMS was simply stunning. The telecast was great and showed great in-car camera shots, but in person the race was fantastic. It was worth every penny. Lower downforce has created great racing (…now how about a hundred or so extra horsepower?).
Now that IndyCar has the on-track product package ironed out (for the most part), can we have more ovals please? We aren’t asking for a schedule full of them. We don’t want to go anywhere not up to safety standards. We don’t want the series to do anything that isn’t financially viable. Fans want to see amazing racing that makes them long for more. Amazing racing is happening at ovals, so we should have more ovals. An exciting race like Indy, Texas, and Milwaukee makes fans. Those races make people that are already fans happier than a fat kid with an ice cream cone. Hell, Texas made me happier than a fat kid with 2 ice cream cones. If IndyCar continues to put on shows like they have, the fans will come. There were a record number of lead-changes at the Indianapolis 500 which was followed by a street race that had zero lead changes. Do I need to say anything else?
Bless his heart, Randy Bernard has more things to juggle than we can imagine, and he is doing everything he can to make the series successful. But in the end the fans have to be happy, and the ovals have made this fan happier than ever. So, can we have a couple more Randy? Pocono, so the series can race on a triangle too (more diversity!)? Michigan, to return to one of the most lauded tracks in IndyCar history? Phoenix, and oddball of a track with a kinky side? New Hampshire, where you teased the Northeast fans with flat-track action before pulling out too soon? We aren’t saying no more road or street courses (Road America, Watkins Glen, Portland, Laguna Seca, Circuit of the Americas would all be fine additions), but can we pretty please have more ovals? We are asking nicely this time.