(Exciting Indy Car racing like last week's finish at Kentucky Speedway is on the endangered list)
Sunday’s IZOD Indy Car Series race at Kentucky Speedway may have been the last for the open wheel series in the Bluegrass State.
Despite yet another riveting race that featured a photo finish with Ed Carpenter scoring his first career victory over Dario Franchitti, the 2012 Indy Car Series schedule does not have Kentucky on the calendar.
In fact next year’s slate will feature only five oval tracks with Kentucky and New Hampshire Motor Speedway dropping off the slate. So the series that was founded as an all-oval circuit in the aftermath of the open wheel split between CART and the IRL, has now dwindled to only a handful with the majority of the schedule now comprised with road courses and street circuits.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. president Bruton Smith reportedly would like to keep his two venues in Kentucky and New Hampshire as part of the plan, but without a title race sponsor those prospects appears slim at best.
The list of former oval tracks that no longer host Indy Car racing is staggering; Charlotte, Atlanta, Chicagoland, Nashville, Kansas, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Dover, Michigan and Gateway all at one time were part of the open wheel world.
But as the series evolved to include more road courses and street circuits, oval tracks fell by the wayside.
IZOD Indy Car Series CEO Randy Bernard would like to find a way to keep more ovals on the schedule but the business and economic side of the equation has made it a difficult challenge.
“The ovals are important to our fan base and to our series because we need to keep a balance in order to remain the most diverse series in the world,” Bernard told SPEED. “I’m concerned but what can we do? It’s a tough deal right now getting promoters for ovals.’’
What adds to that tough deal is the tepid attendance for Indy Car oval track racing. With the exceptions of the Indianapolis 500, the relatively new stop at Iowa Speedway and the annual June visit to Texas Motor Speedway, which has also seen its ticket sales fall in recent years, generating a crowd for an oval track Indy Car race is nearly impossible.
Despite spectacular racing, empty seats drove the series out of places like Chicago, Kansas, Milwaukee and Phoenix. Kentucky’s crowd was extremely thin and most likely put the final nail in the track’s open wheel coffin.
I’m not sure what more fans could ask for in terms of excitement and thrills than watching these high-speed battles that more often than not result in exactly the kind of scintillating finish that saw Carpenter edge Franchitti on Sunday.
Maybe it’s more a reflection on the hard pressed economy and the lack of funds facing all race fans. While Kentucky played to an intimate crowd, there also weren’t any attendance records being set at Dover’s Sprint Cup Series race.
Although NASCAR attendance has been somewhat better this year than last, the standing room only crowds that punctuated the sport only a handful of seasons ago have not returned in mass. Everything from high fuel prices to outrageous lodging expenses to just simply not having as much disposable income can all be blamed for the still soft box office numbers.
The upside is a NASCAR Sprint Cup race easily outdistances any stick and ball or other form of motorsports in the attendance department. But there’s no doubt series and track officials are hoping to drive ticket sales higher as soon as possible.
So both disciplines of racing have their challenges in these uncertain times trying to find ways to entice more spectators through the turnstyles.
But rather than each trying to outsmart the other, what would happen if NASCAR and Indy Car teamed up to promote a series of doubleheaders?
The Camping World Truck Series has worked well as a weekend partner to Indy Car racing over the years and in fact was the opening act on Saturday night in Kentucky. While on the surface there may appear to be little crossover between fan bases, the combination of the trucks and Indy Cars has more often than not created a pair of entertaining events at places like Kentucky, Texas and Kansas over the years.
Why not take it to the next level and tie in a Nationwide or even a Sprint Cup race with an Indy Car event?
Certainly from the Indy Car standpoint it would provide a tremendous platform to put its product in front of a whole lot more people than the series has been able to draw on its own.
Exposing a NASCAR-centric crowd to the kind of thrilling racing the series puts on at these intermediate-sized tracks would definitely provide an opportunity to hook those fans as potential followers down the road.
The idea might be a bigger win for NASCAR track operators as well, some of which are having a tough time drawing decent-sized crowds for Nationwide and truck support events especially when Sprint Cup regulars are not in the field.
Spicing up a weekend to include the lightning-fast Indy Cars as the preliminary to a Sprint Cup race could be just the tonic some tracks need to put some buzz back into their schedules.
This idea has been casually floated before and almost immediately shot down by the previous Indy Car regime that balked at playing “second fiddle” to NASCAR. But Bernard seems to have a grasp on why doing business as usual is not a good thing and open to new ideas and thinking.
It’s time to put egos aside on both sides of the fence and explore opportunities that in my mind would be beneficial to each series.
Indy Car racing should not disappear from the oval track landscape. Fostering an alliance with NASCAR might seem like a radical idea, but could ultimately be a winning formula that fans just might warm up to.
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