Friday, August 7, 2009
Needing to build interest, IRL heads down the wrong road
(by Peter Pistone cbssports.com 8-6-09)
Remember all that excitement after the Champ Car-IRL merger last year?
Despite bringing the open-wheel world under one umbrella when the two sides finally came together, IndyCar racing continues to be pretty much an afterthought on the American motorsports scene.
When the unification deal was announced, there appeared to be some momentum for open wheel to regain the audience and prominence it lost during a civil war that lasted more than a decade.
Car counts shot up, with nearly 30 machines showing up at several races last year. Interest in the Indy 500 was high -- fans finally got a chance to see all the sport's best stars back at the Brickyard competing in "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
Overall it seemed like the foundation was in place to bring the sport back, at least partially, to the popularity level of the early 1990s, when IndyCars actually outdrew NASCAR in attendance and television ratings.
Unfortunately, I don't see that happening.
To be fair, the economy is hitting the series even harder than what NASCAR has experienced. Fields are smaller in the 2009 IRL as teams struggle to find the funding necessary to compete.
Television ratings aren't quite at test pattern levels, but moving the bulk of telecasts to the Versus Network -- away from the ABC/ESPN partnership the series enjoyed for years -- has dropped the visibility factor immensely.
And with the release of the 2010 schedule, it's apparent providing the best possible backdrops for close competition and tight racing is not a priority for league officials.
How else can you explain the decision to move further away from high-speed oval track racing and toward more street circuit events and road courses?
One of the positive fallouts of the open-wheel split was the IRL's inclusion of high-speed oval tracks like Texas, Las Vegas, Chicagoland, Kansas and Kentucky to its schedule.
Every time the series competes at one of these lightning-fast tracks, the action is almost impossible to follow.
Photo finishes became the norm, and last week's incredible finish between Ryan Briscoe and Ed Carpenter at Kentucky was the latest example of just how thrilling this kind of racing can be.
It seems to me creating a series to highlight such competition would be paramount in selling IndyCar racing to all fans, those who have followed the sport for years or those who have just discovered open-wheel racing.
But next year's schedule doesn't reflect that line of thinking. Two oval tracks have been dropped -- Milwaukee and Richmond -- in favor of a road course in Birmingham, Ala., and a new circuit in Brazil.
Milwaukee, the oldest oval track in North America, is in the middle of financial issues that might shut the historic facility's doors for good. And Richmond's management reportedly decided not to bring the IRL back for financial reasons.
But the dropping of ovals has been a pattern in recent years, and rather than giving fans nearly guaranteed excitement by adding Vegas, Michigan, California or Nashville to the schedule, officials believe the answer is more road racing.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway has nearly begged the IRL for a date the last two years, only to be shot down as the series pursues ideas like a possible circuit around Gillette Stadium or downtown street races in Philadelphia or Denver.
While those events do draw people and generate a festival-type atmosphere, the racing leaves much to be desired. In the end, the product on the track is what will keep fans returning -- or watching on TV -- not just a party being held in the middle of an auto race.
It's a mistake many inside the industry say will not only stifle the series' growth but could lead to its downfall as well. With Tony George ousted by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway board, the funding that has come to the series through IMS will slow down significantly if not stop completely. The series has never had a title sponsor worth much, and it doesn't appear to be one on the horizon.
So while the financial picture isn't rosy, the best thing the IRL could do is provide the best possible racing and competition possible.
Sorry to disappoint, but unless you like single-file parades around temporary road courses better than wheel-to-wheel action -- lap after lap at nearly 200 mph -- the future of the Indy Racing League is not for you.
That's more than disappointing and a decision one hopes will be reversed before the open-wheel war years start to look like the good old days.