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Adios, ovals. It’s been good to know you.

History is replete with species that didn’t make it:  the passenger pigeon, the dodo, Dragon Racing.  You can add ovals other than Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Verizon IndyCar Series to the list of auto racing endangered species.  And like the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and Dragon Racing, the reasons for the potential demise are human .

Automobile oval racing is inherently an American product.  The county and state fairgrounds’ horse tracks allowed racing to be brought to the masses.  Indianapolis may have received the publicity, but oval racing came of age on dirt all across the country.  As for-profit board tracks and dirt ovals started popping up, fans had accessible and entertaining racing.  Life was good for many years.

But dirt gave way to pavement.  It was faster, cleaner, and modern.  Fans flocked to see the stars of their day drive in circles in open-wheel race cars.  The modern rear-engined IndyCar has its roots in F1 and road courses, but they were also designed for ovals.  The specs of the two series diverged.

The current DW12 is a robust beast that handles road and street courses well and is extremely competitive on ovals if the series gets the aerodynamic rules right for a particular track.  Let’s face it; it was designed for Indianapolis.  Even de-tuned, it is close enough to as fast as anyone wants to go there.  Recent Indy 500’s have had edge-of-your-seat racing and piss-your-pants passing.  That’s good, right?

Well, with that kind of action, why are ovals drying up like autumn leaves in October?  We can rehash the old reasons like the stubbornness of CART, the willfulness of Tony George, the ascendancy of NASCAR, and the ineptness of IndyCar management.  All are true, to one degree or another, and have led us to this point.  This point being one where no one wants to host and promote an oval and, apparently, no one wants to watch a race on one either.

People want to be entertained.  IndyCar may have the best on-track product of any major racing series, but they do not put on much of a show at an oval.  A road or street course will have on-track action throughout a weekend with the likes of three Mazda Road to Indy series, the Pirelli World Challenge, the Tudor Series, and Robbie Gordon’s Stadium Trucks as well as a circus-like atmosphere at street courses.  Indianapolis gets away with race day because of the tradition, pageantry, and debauchery, but even Indy has lost the shine on qualification weekend.

The Indy 500 is moving in the right direction, though.  Concerts and glamping helped this year.  Other venues need to follow suit, and the Verizon IndyCar Series needs to help.  Promoters are treating ovals like the toxic money-loss that they are.  IndyCar needs to pack up its own circus, support series, and musical performances and take them on the road.  Once an oval is popular and profitable, the series can wring more money for its services or allow the promoter to do his or her own thing.

If the series really wants ovals on the schedule, it has to do something.  If a business has a supply that no one want, they need to manufacture the demand.  That’s promotion.  IndyCar has made a big splash with its recent hires and series sponsorship. Now it needs to perform.

William Shakespeare wrote that “What’s past is prologue.”¹  If you don’t mind a moment of existentialism², we are always in THIS moment.  There is no other.  It doesn’t matter what brought ovals here, it only matters what the series does now to save a vanishing breed.  Let’s hope they find them worth saving.

 

1.  The quote is from The Tempest.  In the play, it helps justify murder.  That seems excessive.  I’m just looking for a little promotional help from the series.

2.   existentialism: a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.  I think IndyCar fans should have a strong vocabulary.  It makes it easier to insult NASCAR fans and run away before they figure it out.

 

 

 

The magic Miles at IMS

Admit it. You saw it coming, didn’t you? When Mark Miles first broached the subject of IndyCar racing on the road course, it was a fait accompli, a done deal, money in the bank. There was NEVER any doubt that the cars in May were going to go the wrong way for the right reasons. And all those reasons come back to one thing: money.

Miles is not the first person to see that. The much maligned Randy Bernard knew from his first go-round in IndyCar that filling the coffers at 16th and Georgetown was his most important job. That he failed to wrangle the dollars needed to keep his job was not the only reason he was bucked off the boss’s chair at IndyCar. If he had managed to rope a few more promoters willing to pay sanctioning fees and a few more sponsors willing to invest in the series, he might have had a little more support in his battles with owners and drivers. Remember, he floated the ideas of double headers, IndyCars on the road course, and racing in Europe that people now see as coming on stone tablets from Moses Miles.

And I am not criticizing Mark Miles. His work with the ATP and the Super Bowl give him just a little more gravitas with the people who control all those purse strings that IndyCar so desperately needs to open. Bernard was seen as a hick and a huckster by the people that IndyCar needs to schmooze. Miles is seen as a smooth operator who speaks their language. And he does speak their language. The man is good at what he does.

The addition of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis is an absolute no-brainer. Racing now bookends the month of May with both IndyCar races on ABC. I’m guessing that ABC might be doing a little more promotion of its racing properties, particularly with NBC/NBC Sports cornering the market with its multi-series platform. In just over two weeks in May, IMS will host six races, two days of qualifying, and the debauchery that is Carb Day. Rumor has it that IMS is looking at a concert on the Saturday before the race. All of this certainly promotes IndyCar, IMS, the Mazda Road to Indy, and public drunkenness, but what it aims to do is make more money for everyone involved. And I have no problem with that.

Miles has taken a measured approach to growing the series. There are no quick fixes. The new Grand Prix of Indianapolis is not an example of an itchy trigger finger; it is a measured response to improving the month of May for the fans and the track in the long term. Once again, money. The schedule for 2014 does not contain any great new venues or opportunities. That a schedule is not yet out shows that Miles is learning the same lesson Randy Bernard did: the dotted line has to signed before an announcement can be made. But the focus Miles has on the 2015 schedule is another example of his slow and steady approach. Want more? With all that tax money in hand to make a splash, IMS has chosen to improve the road course to make a better show for IndyCar and MotoGP. I would guess the unpronounceable acronym that is sports car racing in America will benefit, too. But why no lights? Instead of adding a benefit that would get headlines, Miles mentioned the words that are honey to marketers and sponsors; the lights did not give a good ROI or return on investment. I wish my broker was that thoughtful with my money.

While cowboy Randy Bernard was wrong from the day he started work in some people’s eyes, magic Mark Miles can do no wrong. Looking at it closely, the main difference is really style and expectations. And of course, money. Let’s hope that the future of IndyCar with Mark Miles is not just smoke and mirrors. IndyCar doesn’t need any more illusions. It needs real magic.

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