Why shorter is better as IndyCar shores up its dwindling roster of oval races

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The return of Iowa Speedway to the calendar beginning in 2022 is a positive sign for IndyCar fans who have sought more equity between oval, road and street courses on the calendar in recent years.

IndyCar president Roger Penske spoke during a joint press conference on 19 August, welcoming Iowa back to the calendar after its absence from the 2021 schedule. “Over the years, Iowa has proven to be a fitting showcase for North America’s premier open-wheel series. A key oval and a hallmark on our schedule, we deeply missed seeing our fans in Iowa this year and look forward to what’s ahead,” remarked Penske.

Penske echoed the sentiments of fans and drivers alike who have grown to love the seven-eighths mile oval in Newton, Iowa during its first stint on the calendar from 2007 until 2020. It is the shining example of a prototypical short oval for IndyCar, one that allows for multiple racing lines and close quarters action on the track, while consistently being able to fill all or at least most of the grandstands to their 30,000 spectator capacity every year prior to 2020.

And more short ovals like Iowa, or the two-kilometre / 1.25 mile oval at Gateway, are exactly what IndyCar could use in order to ease the minds of prospective drivers and fans alike. Save for the Indianapolis 500, the only other superspeedway on the 2021 calendar is the 2.4km / 1.5 mile Texas Motor Speedway. The quality of racing at Texas has suffered in recent years, and glimpses at the grandstands during a race suggest that annual attendance has been equally lacking.

Romain Grosjean, Coyne/Rick Ware, Gateway, IndyCar, 2021
Grosjean made his oval debut at Gateway
When the racing hasn’t been processional, Texas has a reputation – going back to the aborted 2001 CART race and the heyday of the rival Indy Racing League – of being a dangerous circuit where high average speeds often result in crashes. Fairly or not, concerns over safety and attendance have also lingered around former IndyCar superspeedways such as Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Pocono Raceway, and California Speedway in Fontana – all of which have been dropped from the calendar within the last decade.

Some drivers deemed that risk excessive, however there has been signs of a softening in attitudes. Romain Grosjean had to convince himself and his family that running the Gateway 500 was worth the risk in light of his Bahrain Grand Prix crash last December. Jimmie Johnson, who curiously decided on a road-and-street-only schedule for 2021 after spending two decades in the oval-centric NASCAR Cup Series, tested an IndyCar on an oval this week.

Others remain oval-averse. Carlin driver Max Chilton decided in 2019 not to take part in oval races apart from the Indianapolis 500. Mike Conway swore them off entirely after the 2012 season before eventually leaving the series after 2014.

What’s more, prospective IndyCar drivers with road racing backgrounds have been deterred in recent years from risking injury on ovals. One recent example was Nico Hulkenberg, who looked at IndyCar as an option for his post-F1 career in 2020 – but explicitly stated that he wanted to stick to road and street courses if he made the switch.

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Short ovals like Iowa and Gateway are not completely free of risk from airborne crashes or injuries, but the reduced average speeds around these circuits make them a less hazardous alternative to the 1.5 mile and up superspeedways that once made up the bulk of the IRL’s all-oval calendar.

Sebastien Bourdais, IndyCar, Milwaukee
The historic Milwaukee oval no longer hosts IndyCar
But even for all of the successes that Iowa and Gateway have had in drawing spectators, even other short ovals have had difficulty maintaining a long-term presence on the IndyCar calendar.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway was absent from the IndyCar calendar for over a decade, returned in 2011, then was dropped after one farcical and financially insolvent race. Richmond Raceway in Virginia never even had a chance: The planned return to the three-quarter mile bullring for the 2020 season was called off due to Covid-19 related restrictions, and there was seemingly no interest in trying again this season.

But for the foremost examples of short ovals struggling to stay on the IndyCar calendar, look no further than two one-mile ovals rich in American open-wheel racing history which have fallen to the wayside in the past decade: The Milwaukee Mile in Wisconsin – reputedly the oldest operating speedway in the world – and Phoenix Raceway in Arizona.

Dwindling attendance had a part in Milwaukee’s disappearance from the calendar after 2015, and Phoenix falling off after 2018, just two years after its IndyCar race was revived. Phoenix was also hampered by processional racing, which some observers blame on a NASCAR-centric reprofiling of the circuit in 2011. Milwaukee hadn’t changed its layout in that time, but their IndyCar future was also cut short after a promoter couldn’t be found to replace Andretti Sports Marketing – which was sold off by Michael Andretti in 2015.

IndyCar, Phoenix
IndyCar’s recent return to Phoenix proved short-lived
In the case of the Milwaukee Mile, the 108-year-old circuit nearly shut its doors for good after losing their place on the IndyCar calendar. Another historic one-mile oval with an IndyCar history, Nazareth Speedway in Pennsylvania, shut its doors in 2004 – and now sits in a perpetual state of decay.

That same fate nearly befell both Gateway – which temporarily closed in 2010 and didn’t have an IndyCar date from 2004 until its successful revival in 2017 – and Iowa, which held a double-header in 2020 with no title sponsor and just 5,000 spectators per race day due to Covid-19 restrictions. IndyCar had to pay every cost associated with the 2020 event, including leasing the venue from its owners, NASCAR (who bought Iowa Speedway in 2013 and operate the circuit under subsidiary company Iowa Speedway, LLC).

It was understandable then that, facing those same difficult circumstances, the event couldn’t be held in 2021. The loss of IndyCar prompted speculation over the circuit’s future, which is why it was so important to secure midwestern supermarket chain Hy-Vee as a long-term title sponsor for Iowa’s two races starting next year.

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Does IndyCar’s pending return to Iowa Speedway and the annual success of Gateway, mean that a renaissance of short oval racing is imminent? Not necessarily. These two venues have been the successful exceptions that have stood out among several recent failures, if anything.

Callum Ilott, Nurburgring, 2020
Ilott is the latest European driver to head to IndyCar
But it is clear that Roger Penske wants more ovals on the IndyCar calendar in the future, and has gone on the record several times during his brief tenure as IndyCar owner to get that point across.

Adding more short ovals to the calendar would help bring IndyCar back to that diversity of racing disciplines they enjoyed before the split of 1996, as well as the short term after reunification in 2008.

It could also help ease the minds of talent that wants to come to IndyCar, but may feel that superspeedway racing is a risk too great to accept. An over-supply of talent in Formula 1 has seen ex-grand prix racers Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, plus top Formula 2 racers Christian Lundgaard and Callum Ilott enter the series this year, the latter at Portland next weekend.

But in order to make that a viable plan for the future, IndyCar has to figure out what went wrong with so many failed events at short ovals in recent years, and convince spectators to turn out – and keep turning out – to these potential events when they had no incentive to do so before.

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RJ O'Connell
Motorsport has been a lifelong interest for RJ, both virtual and ‘in the carbon’, since childhood. RJ picked up motorsports writing as a hobby...

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  • 13 comments on “Why shorter is better as IndyCar shores up its dwindling roster of oval races”

    1. What an image. The top one, I mean.

      1. @jerejj Yeah, I really hope someone told Grosjean that was going to happen!

      2. Omg, does it get any more American than that.

      3. It it was 50% wider to the right I’d be in that picture!

        You also missed out on the massive police car parade that took place about 15 minutes before this – police cars literally running 4 wide, and the full length of the main straight.

        They certainly get the spectacle in, though the 3 wide parade laps don’t really do it for me, especially when it then takes another 2 laps for the cars to rearrange themselves in rows of 2.

    2. That’s the thing: attendance. It looks so sad on tv to see Indycars on ovals with all those half empty stands. As a contrast, I saw some bits of NASCAR at Daytona. It looked amazing with all those people in the stands.

      1. Daytona is a marquee NASCAR venue, you can’t compare that with an Indycar race at Iowa. That would be like comparing grand prix attendance between Silverstone and Shanghai.

      2. @Franco except Gateway gets reasonable attendances – I was there at the race this year and by eyeballing attendance, it was imo the smallest Gateway crowd since the race returned – only being half full.

        When Gateway originally joined CART in 1997, were were in the full wars of the Split and CART used the race as counter programming on Saturday night to the IRLs Indy 500 on the Sunday. People didn’t turn up as a result.

        @rjoconnell89 to answer the final question you posed – the reason Gateway is working is promotion i.e. telling people there’s a major motor race just across the river in Illinois and actually giving people a reason to go (for context or distance, I can see the Gateway Arch from my apartment in STL, as I could from the track). The local TV stations here in St Louis were playing plenty of adverts for the race and the main sponsor is a big car dealer around here (that first race in 2017, they were promoting the race during ad breaks for the Indy 500 qualifying). So the Gateway race is well funded with a sponsor that cares, is promoted well and therefore turns a profit, to the point that people who at face value appeared to have little interest in motorsports turned up to take in the experience.

        Then there’s the fact that St Louis is around 4-5 hours away from Indianapolis (I’ve done the drive twice so I know). I met people in the beer & burger queue who had travelled down to Gateway from Indy for the race on Saturday night. There’s a reason a lot of the races are in the Mid-West, or more specifically within a sensible drive of Indianapolis (4-6 hours imo), in that it’s similar to football fans travelling to away games on a regular basis. The same went for the Nashville race – that’s also a similar distance from both Indianapolis and St Louis, so I seriously considered going myself (only the hotel prices put me off).

        Phoenix was promoted terribly, as were the last few races at Milwaukee. Fontana also falls into that category but the 2014 race I went to was a Saturday night at the end of August – with temperatures hitting 38C (or around 100F) at 5pm just before the green flag, and the heat is a good reason why people didn’t go. Fontana wanted Indycar but only in October when it is far cooler in SoCal so that people would come – something that Indycar wasn’t interested in. The final race in 2015 being held on a Saturday afternoon in mid-June really should make the point as to why Fontana dropped off the calendar. For the opposite reasons to Belgium last weekend, Fontana could have worked but not holding the race in late Autumn just killed any chance of it working.

        The other problem that isn’t really mentioned above is that most ovals are owned by the Nascar aligned SMI, or by Nascar itself (especially after it purchased ISC). And many of them are 1.5 mile ovals that promote very samey racing. (FYI @rjoconnell89 those aren’t Superspeedways – I thought those were defined as 2+ mile tracks only).

        The other issue is that most newer tracks were built with Nascar in mind, and make Herman Tilke look like an inventive genius. This Youtube video explains it very well. It leaves Indycar with not much choice – when even CotA decided to trash the Indycar race for Nascar, what chance does an oval track have?

        The racing at Fontana was great but bad promotion and scheduling killed it. Milwaukee lost it’s traditional date (the week after Indy) and that really can make or break a race – note how the Darlington Nascar race, after it moved back to Labor Day weekend has benefitted from returning to its traditional race date? Pocono was dropped after too many crashes like Justin Wilson and Robert Wickens’ accidents and the track not wanting to invest in further safety improvements (maybe because it’s privately owned and the money isn’t there to do so).

        There’s options for Indycar but money, scheduling and promotion matter – that’s been the problem for Indycar, finding the right track that can do all 3 to make it work. Gateway succeeded because of that. The jury remains out on Iowa as despite great racing I believe it’s lost money over the years. Even street tracks aren’t immune, the Baltimore road course went because it lost money despite impressive crowds, same for the race at Edmonton (that and the airport track used is being ripped up so it’s never coming back).

        I’m optimistic, especially with Penske running the show but I’d like to see a few more ovals on the schedule myself – and I’d also want some larger tracks to return, but only if it makes financial sense.

    3. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
      2nd September 2021, 11:53

      I started following Indycar when Nigel Mansell started driving there.
      I remember the first time watching the race at the Milwaukee Mile and being blown away by the dizzying and frenetic racing. It was mesmerising, such a shame we lost it.

    4. I had a minor panic that you were suggesting Indy Car should race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the half mile short track!

      I’m not against further ovals, but I think big or small, the most important thing about any oval is that there is more than 1 line. If the high line is not viable, it’ll be a processional race.

    5. The reason the 2001 CART race at the Texas Motor Speedway was cancelled was because the drivers were spending more time in high-G corners than on the straight, and their blood just pooled in their feet. They were blacking out from continued high G forces – no blood in the brain.

      I don’t really see how our newer, faster cars, are going to make that situation better. I mean, driver and organizer attitudes may have changed, but physics and biology sure hasn’t.

    6. Your Friendly Neighborhood Spiderman
      2nd September 2021, 16:13

      Revive Nazareth!

      Reply moderated
    7. It’s interesting that attendances are still a benchmark for a successful race and not people watching at home. If there’s one thing 2020 taught me, it’s sport doesn’t really need fans there for it to happen.

    8. It is my understanding that super speedways are at least two miles, like Daytona, Indianapolis and Pocono for instance. Texas is not a super speedway.

      The classification is (according to Wikipedia)
      Short oval – less than one mile
      Intermediate oval – 1 to 2 miles
      Super speedway – 2 miles or more

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