Ovalistas, where are you?
Yankee baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop ’em.” This convoluted philosophy is exactly what the Verizon IndyCar Series is fighting at all ovals on the schedule that are not the Indianapolis 500. Ovals in the series are on life-support, and whether the fans or the series like it, the economic concept of supply and demand will have its way.
Other than Indianapolis and Iowa, the ovals suffer from woeful attendance issues. The series, trying to appease what seems to be a very small but VERY vocal minority of fans, has worked diligently to add ovals to the menu. For all I know, all of the oval fans may be going to the races. It doesn’t seem that there are very many of us left. In any case, it is not enough.
The ovals all have their own unique issues. With Texas and Fontana, the heat is oppressive. Unless you are absolutely hard-core, it’s easier to stay in the air-conditioning and watch on TV. Milwaukee lost its prime schedule real estate when Roger Penske demanded and received the week after Indy slot and the accompanying momentum and ABC network broadcast. Pocono, while being in driving distance of East Coast fans, soon discovered that there don’t seem to be many fans in those locations who want to venture into the mountains on an already crowded and expensive 4th of July weekend. Iowa Speedway, even though the crowd has remained steady, is now owned by NASCAR, a series with a history of showing very little love to IndyCar. Many of the venues suffer from lack of on-track activity before the race. And with the economy often limiting fans to attending fewer events, even the Indianapolis 500 is in competition with Milwaukee and Pocono.
Another problem, reminiscent of being and F1 fan, is that watching ovals has become a somewhat esoteric activity. You need to be an oval fan to understand and appreciate oval races. Pocono, from my perspective, was a great oval race. Strategies were in place to save fuel, leading to Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden being in front with the laps dwindling down. Pit service had to be spot or you dropped back. The low-banked and long corners created edge-of-your-seat racing that was incredibly fast and edgy in person but did not necessarily translate to television. Fuel saving at Pocono, while a strategy, created a holding station situation for the drivers. Saving fuel meant that there was very little racing for position until the end of the race. The longer the race went without a yellow flag, the slower the cars went and the more they strung out. Like it or not, these are the types of strategies that go with oval racing. With just one yellow flag, the cars never had a chance to restart and race hard. The one time they did led to an OMG moment as the pack hurtled toward the first turn with Will Power continuing his turn to a heel by blocking teammate Helio Castroneves. It was a scintillating racing moment. You just had to be a fan willing to wait over 400 miles for it.
Brandon Igdalsky rattled his saber the week before the race because of low ticket sales. Unlike promoters such as Eddie Gossage at Texas, who enjoys taking public shots at the Verizon IndyCar Series and its drivers, Igdalsky called out the fans by pointing out that he added IndyCar because research showed that the fans wanted it. Basically, he told the fans to put up or shut up. And that’s where the oval fans in IndyCar are right now. Hopefully, Iowa Speedway is packed for the Iowa Corn 300. If not, then it may be time to shut up about how many ovals are on the schedule. Of all the things that Yogi Berra misspoke, I certainly hope the following becomes true about IndyCar ovals: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”