The release of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule hints at a future where permanent road courses take the spotlight at the expense of their temporary brethren.
The notion that street circuits might some day be considered second-rate citizens seemed sacrilegious just a few years ago. Even now, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is the second-oldest event on the schedule with a history that goes back to CART’s first visit in 1984. While its presence on the calendar looks secure, the development of new street racing venues may have less focus moving forward.
Emphasis on Variety
For a championship that brought together the oval-focused IndyCar Series and the road-and-street-heavy Champ Car World Series in 2008, a future where all three types of circuits stand on equal footing made a lot of sense.
Repeatedly, those that run IndyCar have stated that the variety of tracks is one of the hallmarks of the series. The drivers have gotten in on it too and to be fair, it’s not wrong. The notion that there is no other series in the world as diverse as IndyCar has a certain appeal, both from the standpoint of competition (attracting the world’s best drivers) and marketing (fans getting the best of everything).
The argument that road courses have come on strong in recent years isn’t hard to back up. A look at the top five highest-rated races on NBCSN, for example, illustrates a trend in viewership tastes. The most-watched race of the past five years is the 2016 Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, a classic American road course. The next two on the list are also road courses: the season-ending 2015 GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma and the 2015 edition of the Honda Indy 200. Numbers four and five are the first to break the trend, with the temporary airport circuit at Edmonton in fourth and the 2015 ABC Supply 500 on the Pocono Raceway oval in fifth.
Cable ratings don’t tell the whole story, of course, especially with ABC broadcasting three street races (St. Petersburg and the Detroit doubleheader) as well as the entire month of May. More evidence of permanent road course supremacy comes under the heading politics, a well-known topic among IndyCar stakeholders.
Street Circuit Situation
Temporary street circuits have one big strike against them before they even get started: They must secure the support of an entire city. The same affliction plagues international events as well — although those often need to convince not just a city but a national government of the merits of an IndyCar event.
Local support sometimes comes easy, as it has in Long Beach, where the Grand Prix receives credit for not just helping the city but transforming it. Then there are locales like Toronto and St. Petersburg — both of which now have lengthy histories with open-wheel racing — but every so often questions arise about the long-term prospects of these events. Detroit, while confirmed to return as a doubleheader, often feels like it exists solely because Roger Penske wants it to.
Then there’s Boston. Much has been written about failed Grand Prix of Boston, both here and elsewhere, so the minutiae can be omitted. The lesson to take away from the New England debacle is that without the full support of a city, staging a street race becomes nearly impossible.
Surely there are cities, likely smaller ones, that would welcome IndyCar with open arms. The question becomes: Is it worth it?
Governments — or any administration for that matter — are fickle things. Elections bring new leadership, support that was once strong wanes, and suddenly a proposed street race that sat at the center of a city’s plan for growth and revitalization becomes nothing but a drain on resources.
Permanent road courses typically do not have this issue (noise ordinances, like those that affect Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, notwithstanding). Tracks like Mid-Ohio and Sonoma have become mainstays on the IndyCar schedule and the return first of Road America and now Watkins Glen International on Labor Day weekend demonstrates an insatiable hunger for a certain style of racing and fan experience.
Bright Future for Road Courses
The status of road courses is likely to continue improving. Many venues have entered the conversation as possible destinations for the series, including Portland International Raceway, a 12-turn, 1.967-mile road course in Oregon that hosted Indy car races from 1984 to 2007.
Canadian Tire Motorsport Park comes up often as a possible site of another round north of the border. Road Atlanta, home to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Petit Le Mans, could add another southeastern destination for IndyCar should the track deal with issues like run-off areas to compensate for the higher speed of open-wheel cars.
The possibilities are vast for road course additions while potential street circuits are harder to pinpoint. Urban centers like Oklahoma City and Norfolk, Virginia have received attention from the press but street races are usually a few years off following initial interest.
IndyCar’s Oval Roots
Road courses aren’t only tracks crowding out street circuits.
Ovals, while facing declining attendance, represent the traditional backbone of American open-wheel racing. Rather than allowing every oval other than the Indianapolis 500 to fade away, the series has demonstrated an interest in not only expanding the oval race count but also continuing to build a sustainable fan base through date equity. The extension of the 500-mile event at Pocono Raceway through 2018 stands as a prime example of a race that has existed “on the bubble” since its return in 2013 getting a chance to prove it belongs on the schedule.
IndyCar has committed to Iowa Speedway where the Iowa Corn 300 enjoys the second-longest entitlement partnership in the sport. Phoenix International Raceway also appears on the 2017 schedule despite a crowd that many felt was below expectations for its return this year. Perhaps most tellingly, a sixth oval has been added at Gateway Motorsports Park following the signing of a multi-year agreement.
The improved relationship with International Speedway Corporation — owner of both Phoenix and Watkins Glen — could open up additional oval opportunities at tracks like Chicagoland, Homestead-Miami, Kansas, Michigan and Richmond.
Six road courses. Six ovals. Four street circuits with five races thanks to the Detroit doubleheader. If the trend continues coupled with the multitude of road courses and ovals available for IndyCar to race at, street circuits could easily stay in the minority for years to come.