Phoenix departure from INDYCAR leaves 2019 schedule in limbo

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ISM Raceway

Unfortunately the inevitable has finally occurred: IndyCar will not return to the Arizona desert in 2019 and race at ISM Raceway.  The announcement was first made public by Michael Knight and confirmed by the Verizon IndyCar Series later in the afternoon.

In the official statement from IndyCar, it read as follows: “IndyCar has enjoyed its time racing at ISM Raceway, but attendance in the past three years has been disappointing despite considerable investment from both sides.

“Track president Bryan Sperber and his team have been terrific partners and are developing a beautiful facility, and IndyCar will reconnect with them when conditions are right for both parties.

“Meanwhile, IndyCar is moving forward with building a terrific schedule for the 2019 season.”

While many applauded the series’ return to the southwest back in 2016, that excitement simply did not translate to a profitable event.  Attendance numbers were dreadful for each of the three events despite efforts to bolster the weekend schedule with USAC events and autograph sessions for the fans.

IndyCar had even staged the unofficial start to the season each February with an annual “Prix View” held at ISM Raceway to help generate interest in the season and the Phoenix race that would be held just two months later.

Hope has not been completely dashed on Phoenix, though, as track president Sperber left the door open just a touch in public comments made to Knight.

“We have enjoyed having IndyCar at our venue for the full three years of our agreement,” Sperber told the Arizona Republic. . “The series officials and teams have been tremendous partners.

“IndyCar will not be on our schedule in 2019; we’re currently taking a pause to review schedule options for the future.

“IndyCar is currently discussing with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) other potential venues and opportunities. We’d like IndyCar to be on our calendar in the coming years, and we will work with IndyCar to find a date that will help deliver a successful event.”

It is important to note the interesting comment made by Sperber that IndyCar continues to evaluate options with ISC.

Suddenly there could be lots of shuffling within the 2019 schedule with Phoenix’s exit and dates with Detroit and Texas still up in the air.  NBC has indicated that it would prefer to end the season on an oval, so that leaves Sonoma in limbo as well.

International Speedway Corporation currently oversees the operation of 13 facilities across North America, all of which host a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event with the exception of Route 66 Raceway.

Of those 13, Indy cars have raced at 8 of those venues.  That includes Auto Club Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Michigan International Speedway, ISM Raceway, Richmond Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

Could there be an ISC track waiting in the wings to fill Phoenix’s vacated April date?

If the race weekend doesn’t shift dates, then that narrows the possibilities quite a bit.  Auto Club Speedway and Homstead-Miami Speedway then become the only candidates for an IndyCar return – though those aren’t the best options.

Recent races at Fontana were even more of an eyesore for attendance than Phoenix was, despite the exciting pack racing that track produces.  That leaves Homestead as the only real suitor to fill an April gap, which may not be a terrible idea since that would be months removed from NASCAR’s annual finale weekend.

What may be an ever greater problem lies with the ongoing trend of declining attendance at IndyCar oval events.  While the Indianapolis 500 will always draw a massive crowd – most ovals around the country have been hit hard with an exodus of racing fans from what used to be a healthy racing ecosystem.

Gateway Motorsports Park has been the only oval that could join Indianapolis by bucking the trend.  The track made its return to the IndyCar schedule last year with an astounding turn-out of approximately 40,000 fans, while other tracks on the schedule struggle to pull in 15,000 spectators.

With Michigan stating many times that they are more interested in hosting a music festival than adding another car race to their calendar, that only leaves Chicagoland, Kansas, Richmond and Watkins Glen as even remote possibilities – each of which would require a date change from Phoenix’s current placement.

This will be a development to follow as we near the end of this 2018 season and begin to prepare for 2019.  At this time there does not appear to be a clear suitor to Phoenix’s departure within the ISC stable of tracks, but anything is possible.

Stay tuned to Open-Wheels.com for the latest developments as we continue to update the story.

Image courtesy of Christopher Owens/INDYCAR.

Tanner Watkins

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