It was good to watch a hard-fought IndyCar season-closer in California with Scott Dixon taking a very deserving third championship. Dixon has now won three IndyCar titles in 2003, ’08 and this year while Chip Ganassi’s team has won six of the last seven championships and accumulated 10 championships over the last 18 years in CART/IRL/IndyCar. These came in 1996 with Jimmy Vasser, 1997 and ’98 with Alex Zanardi, ’99 with Juan Pablo Montoya, plus three with Dixon and four more with Dario Franchitti in 2007, ’09, ’10 and ’11. Quite an achievement.
All this is great for Ganassi and his excellent team which has been challenged in recent years only by Team Penske and Andretti Autosport. But it’s equally clear that IndyCar faces many challenges if it’s ever to drag its TV ratings out of the gutter and re-establish itself as a major form of motor racing covered in depth by newspapers other than the Indianapolis Star. A glance into the grandstands at the California Speedway said everything about IndyCar’s struggles with the vast majority of seats empty, as they have been for quite a few years at a track located in the heart of one of America’s biggest urban centres.
The California Speedway (or Auto Club Speedway as it’s officially known these days) remains committed to IndyCar for at least one more year, but over the past 15 years no fewer than 40 tracks have given up the battle of trying to draw crowds. Among these are 21 ovals, 11 street circuits and nine road courses. A sad story indeed.
Clearly, IndyCar has lost the battle for popularity on ovals to NASCAR. There were only six ovals on this year’s IndyCar calendar with small crowds at most of them and little or no prospect for any additional oval races in the years ahead.
But IndyCar’s unhappy story is no better elsewhere with five street circuits and four road courses completing next year’s schedule. Three street circuits ran ‘double header’ weekends this year to bolster the dwindling calendar and the same game will play out next year. In an attempt to improve media and fan interest IndyCar’s new boss Mark Miles has compressed the 2014 calendar into five months starting at the end of March and finishing at the end of August. It is the shortest calendar in big-time motor racing today and may be the most abbreviated season in professional sports.
At the behest of the Boston Consulting Group, Miles has also added a new race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course on the second weekend in May, directly before practice starts for the 500. Some people praise this move but many are aghast at yet another departure from the many traditions of the month of May at the Speedway.
The other road courses on next year’s schedule are Barber Motorsports Park, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma Raceway. Classic American road courses like Elkhart Lake and Laguna Seca are long-gone after suffering precipitous declines in crowds 10 years ago during CART’s final days and it’s a sad fact that the most successful crowd-pulling races on permanent road courses in America these days are the NASCAR races at Watkins Glen and Sonoma.
It’s also abundantly clear that IndyCar needs to substantially upgrade its poor standards for street circuits. Most of IndyCar’s street circuits are notoriously rough, crude and poorly presented. This year’s races in Detroit, Baltimore and Houston were an embarrassment, doing nothing but harm to IndyCar’s poor reputation. The time has come to start applying much higher standards to every element of these tracks from road surfaces and fencing to overall presentation.
Similarly, IndyCar must raise the quality and consistency of its officiating. We’ve seen too many bad or inept calls in recent years and everyone hopes Derrick Walker will help bring a more informed and consistent voice to race control.
Meanwhile, IndyCar is trapped in its contract with Dallara as a spec car formula through 2019 at least. There’s no question that many longtime fans have little or no interest in spec car racing and have voted with their feet. If IndyCar is ever to enjoy any kind of turnaround in popularity it must revolutionise its formula and bring back the spirit of competition and innovation but it appears as though it will be years before that’s possible.
IndyCar’s increasing irrelevance is emphasised by the sad state of the Indy Lights series which drew only eight or nine starters for most races this year. Indy Lights has little or no commercial value and is comprised mostly of overseas drivers. IndyCar has outsourced the management of the Lights series and the rest of the open-wheel ladder system to Dan Andersen, a successful building magnate from New Jersey who has great passion for open-wheel racing and is working hard to rebuild IndyCar’s weak and equally irrelevant ladder system.
Those of us who enjoyed Formula Atlantic back in its heyday almost 40 years ago, when Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg and Bobby Rahal made their names in Atlantic cars, pine over the demise of Formula Atlantic and its euthanasia a few years ago after Champ Car was absorbed by the IRL.
I could go on, but the bottom line is that IndyCar must pull its head out of the sand and revolutionise itself somehow, some way. Otherwise, its sad decline and fall is sure to continue.