IndyCar Ovals Future At A Crossroad
I’ll start off by saying what a heck of a race! That is what IndyCar racing is all about on ovals. It was edge of your seat, white knuckle, wheel to wheel, tight racing. To be frank, It’s what has been missing ever since Dan Wheldon’s death.
Now before I go any further, we need to determine what “pack racing” is. There is no technical definition you can look up in a dictionary or on the internet. To me, “pack racing” is what came to describe IndyCar oval racing in the 2000’s, which is when 2-3 cars race side by side, row by row through the entire field. No car could pull away from another car and each row raced side by side, lap after lap for the entire race. It produced a lot of slicing and dicing, along with some of the best finishes the sport has ever seen. This video is the best example.
For the record, NASCAR has two venues of “pack racing”; Daytona and Talladega. There are several downsides to this type of racing from those who hate it: First, it does not take driver skill because your foot is mashed to the ground the whole time. You are along for the ride and hope to be in the right spot at the end to win it. Second, it can cause some horrendous wrecks as IndyCar’s have been known to get airborne into the catch fences, exhibit A would be Wheldon’s crash in 2011 at LVMS. Third, it’s as if the racing is being manipulated by the Series to produce close finishes due to the high levels of downforce.
Now, what we saw at Fontana last night was not “pack racing.” Sure they were 3-5 wide at times but it was not row after row after row through the whole field. The cars did string out much more than what you ever saw with pack racing. One thing that can be deceiving is that Auto Club Speedway has multiple grooves a driver can choose to run. Someone I consider an authority on IndyCar racing and a person I highly respect is Steve Wittich. Here’s what he had to say during the race:
THIS. ISN’T. PACK. RACING.
— Steve Wittich (@stevewittich) June 27, 2015
Look at these highlights from the race. Pay special attention to the entire field, not just the top 5 cars. As the tires began to wear out around lap 15 of a stint, the field strung out more
The IndyCar Series is at a crossroads in my opinion. Why? They must decide what direction they want ovals to go. To be fair, oval racing was dwindling before Wheldon’s death in 2011. Still, ovals could garner 50,000-60,000 fans as I attended the last oval race in Kentucky in 2011, the last Chicagland race in 2010 and the last Michigan race in 2007. Texas was still able to reach 60,000 but ovals slowly started falling off the schedule between 2007-2011. After Dan’s death, we lost a couple more and the ones we did have, were not the same. The race at Texas the last two years have been snoozers as the Series has tried different aero-packages, as well as, tire degradation to string the field out. Oval attendance has dwindled to 15,000-20,000 and Fontana was probably lucky to have 10,000 in attendance due to the hot weather in late June. Will Power let the cat out of the bag during his interview after his wreck with Takuma Sato saying in effect that we said we would never race like this again. Did anyone else catch that? A decision was made after Dan’s death that the Series would eliminate “pack racing.” Listen to Will’s interview:
As I said earlier, Fontana was not “pack racing.” Fontana was close, tight racing which I believe is what fans want. I think there is a correlation to the decline of oval attendance when this type of racing was eliminated. The Series must decide what direction they want ovals to go. The drivers seem split based on social media comments and post race interviews. As Robin Miller said the older drivers, those near 40 and I would add most of the foreign drivers, do not want this type of racing. The younger drivers, especially Americans, want this type of racing. Ed Carpenter summed up the other side with this tweet:
I love close @IndyCar racing. Hate to see drivers bad mouthing a series. If you want to race, race. If not, retire.
— Ed Carpenter (@edcarpenter20) June 27, 2015
I can tell you that 95% of my twitter feed was for this tighter, wheel to wheel racing while only a few were against it. The drivers seem split. I would like to see the Series move in the Fontana direction. Some drivers who are sitting on the sidelines tweeted that they would be more than happy to step in a car and race under the Fontana conditions. As far as I’m concerned, if a driver doesn’t want to race in the Fontana conditions, but wants to remain in the sport, they can pull a Conway; drive the road/street courses and then let an oval expert race on the ovals. They could take Ed’s advice and retire. The MRTI is very strong and has some great drivers that will be good ambassadors for the sport and lead the sport for the next 15 years. If I were IndyCar, I wouldn’t sweat if JPM, TK or Will Power threatened retirement. I’d say, go ahead. There are Conor Daly, Stefan Wilson, Jacob Wilson, J.R. Hildebrand and a healthy MRTI that can easily replace you.
Realistically, we could be looking at just Iowa and Indy on the 2016 schedule. Milwaukee is in jeopardy as reports have said that Andretti Sports Marketing could be done if this year’s event doesn’t have good attendance. Fontana needs a date either in February/March or September for it to work and Pocono could be done if fans don’t show up at the track to watch. Unless the Series has 3 ovals to replace these three, we could be down to two ovals. How much longer until Iowa bites the dust and you are left with the Indy 500 as the only oval on the schedule? What are your thoughts? What did you think of the race? I’d enjoy hearing from you @davidindycar @Open_Wheels