COUNTERPOINT: Street racing

Counterpoint, IndyCar commentary — By on January 15, 2010 4:15 pm
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(Originally posted to Planet-IRL.com.)

Welcome to Counterpoint, a new feature on Planet-IRL.com.

The idea for this column came about last night during Trackside with Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee.  During the open call-in segment, a fan suggested that the solution to the woes of open-wheel racing today is a return to an all-oval schedule.  This resulted in me getting a bit uppity on Twitter, which caused Paul to find me on Skype, and a somewhat animated discussion followed.

After a brief discourse, though, we concluded that it was short-sighted to keep the debate to ourselves.  Instead, we’ve each presented our side of the issue here, and we invite the community to keep the discussion going based on the differing perspectives we’ve provided.

Since Paul and I frequently see things from different angles (he’s an IRL diehard from the Midwest and was raised on oval racing; I’m Canadian, and Canada was always Champ Car country), there should be plenty of fodder for more of these columns in the future.  If you have any ideas for topics that you’d like us to tackle, please feel free to contact us.  We’re always happy to hear from you.

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PAUL’S POINT:

Much has been made about the evolution of the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule since road and street courses were first added to the mix in 2005.  Though only three “twisties” were on that 2005 schedule, the amount of road and street courses has blossomed to the point where there will be, for the first time in Indy Racing League history, more non-oval races than oval races in 2010.  It is a trend that seems unlikely to be reversed any time soon and one that is of great concern to the most ardent, long-time IndyCar fans.

Yes, the original intent of the Indy Racing League, when first announced in 1994, was to preserve the oval-track racing tradition of America and provide opportunities for drivers from the USAC ranks to run in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.  Though the words of Tony George have been bastardized and twisted by many of his detractors, it was never stated during the announcement of the League that the Indy Racing League would always run exclusively on ovals.  The fact that they chose not to go down that path until 2005 shouldn’t be taken as a signal that they did not have that option or that intention.  With the open-wheel civil war since in full swing, it just never made sense for the IRL to sanction events on road or street courses.  Now that the two warring sides have gone through unification (or whatever word you choose to use), it is essential that both sides be represented and to that end, I have no problem supporting races that require both left and right turns.  My gripe is with the trend that the IZOD IndyCar Series seems to be hedging its bets on city street courses more and more every year and turning away from other opportunities that would seem to stimulate the fanbase with a much greater passion.

There is no doubt that some street courses are worthy of their spot on the IndyCar schedule.  Long established venues such as Long Beach and Toronto have proven that they have a staying power and make financial sense.  However, these venues are the very rare exception and are nowhere close to being the rule.  One only needs to look at the history of CART and ChampCar to see that the street circuit model is riddled with failures – Vancouver, Denver, San Jose, Houston, the Meadowlands, Miami, etc., etc., etc.  Unfortunately, what these events provide are many uninterested eyeballs that masquerade as race fans, spurring on other community leaders to undertake similarly doomed events in their city.  In the end, these financial disasters inevitably fail and leave a stain on the reputation of the IZOD IndyCar Series.  I understand that people think it is successful if 5% of the people in attendance at one of these events choose to follow the Series after seeing it live in person.  Unfortunately, that’s not happening.  Why?  Because, by and large, these races produce very little excitement and give the fan no real indication of what an exciting IndyCar event can be.  Sure, there are probably rare exceptions, though at present I can’t really scour my memory for any street race that I would call exciting.

During the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series campaign, the Series will visit street courses in Sao Paulo, St. Pete, Long Beach, and Toronto (some would classify the airport at Edmonton as a street course as well).  As early as 2011, Boston and Baltimore may be added to that list.  Yes, that is the same Boston (technically Foxboro, home of the NE Patriots and Gillette Stadium) that is in the same vicinity as New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a one-mile oval that asked, damn near BEGGED, the Indy Racing League to bring the IndyCar Series to town.  Yes, that is the same Baltimore that is smack in the middle of ovals at Richmond, Dover, Nazareth, and Pocono.  If these cities get races on the 2011 IndyCar schedule, they will no doubt receive some funding from their cities at the expense of the tax payers.  Other funds will be required from corporate sponsors.  In the economy which the world currently finds itself, no government agency and very few corporations have the kind of spare money available to support these types of start-up events.

I have no doubt that if either Boston and Baltimore gets a spot on the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule, we will certainly hear about big crowds – likely above 100,000 people for that BS “three-day total” that IndyCar fans used to scoff at Champ Car for publishing.  What we won’t find on the front page are the stories that come out of Edmonton – the ones saying that the city has lost another $3-4 million dollars hosting this event.  Once the novelty wears off, we won’t see the Indy Racing League put out a press release saying attendance is down 30% in the second year or that a major corporate sponsor has decided not to continue their support of the event.  The event will likely just go away after three or four years, just like the event did in Denver, just like the event did in Detroit, just like the event at the Meadowlands.  Oh, fear not though.  These failed events are sure to be replaced by other failed events, likely in cities like Philadelphia or, God forbid, Nashville where the League can once again thumb its nose at an oval that is sitting nearby.  Promoter and League officials will claim that taking the race and the Series to the people is a great way to increase exposure and attract new fans.  Sure!  Sounds great in principle but where are these new fans?  Since 2005, have the TV ratings skyrocketed in St. Petersburg, Florida?  How did things turn out for Detroit?  Others will claim that it isn’t so much about the racing as it is about the atmosphere and the festival.  Well, excuse me if I’m not excited about my IndyCar Series being a party favor!

As much as a don’t like the street circuits in the Series, I am big enough to admit that an all-oval League probably won’t cut it anymore.  (If it could, it would have been successful in the early years of the split and the Indy Racing League would never have had to look at twisties in the first place, right?)  I fully support the League using natural terrain road courses to enhance its image and add versatility to the Series.  I’ll even go so far as to say I’d be slightly disappointed if all the road courses were taken away from the schedule.  Even though courses like Watkins Glen and Infineon don’t provide the type of wheel-to-wheel action that we see at Kentucky or Chicago, they do provide some good racing.  It’s a shame though that other great road courses like Road America and Laguna Seca are being left behind.  The worst travesty is the street race in Sao Paulo that is being held only a handful of miles from the Interlagos track.  I’m sure there is egotistical mandate that came from the FIA saying that IndyCar was not approved to use that circuit within x-weeks or month of Formula 1 being in town but if that’s the case, then that date should have been worked around.  Unfortunately, it just seems like IndyCar’s relationship with Formula 1 parallels the relationship it has with NASCAR here in the States.

So, there you go… there are my arguments why IndyCar needs to curb this trend of adding more street “races” to the upcoming schedules.  The races are boring, the finances very rarely ever work in anyone’s favor, and the model has proven time and time again that taking the race to the people’s streets does not tend to result in them following next week on TV.  I’ve heard Kevin Lee pose the question several times: “Would you rather watch an IndyCar race on a street course or not watch an IndyCar race at all?”  To be quite honest with you, Kevin, I would generally watch no race at all.  Judging by the declining attendance and TV ratings for these events, it seems I am not alone in this opinion.

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STEPH’S POINT:

Let me begin by putting my view into perspective.

2010 will be my 21st year of following American open-wheel racing.  However, due to various other life limitations (being a poor teenager, a poor college student, a poor 20-something, etc.), this past season was the first that saw me leave the city of Toronto to attend a race.

In my world as I grew up, the event in Toronto was my lifeblood.  Since I was the only person I knew with an interest in the sport (and we didn’t have the internet as a way to meet other fans back then), I watched racing almost exclusively on television.  I yearned for race week in Toronto the way that people in the Midwest yearn for May — it was the only hands-on experience with Indy cars that I had, and it was only because the event was in the middle of the city and I could reach it by public transit that I was able to attend year after year.

And while Indy is always the crown jewel in any race fan’s eyes, claiming a street course as my home track gave me a very different outlook on things.  Watching Little Al earn the moniker King of the Beach approached the same prestige as putting his face on the Borg-Warner in my young mind — he was incredibly dominant at a course that was rich in history but that I could also relate to, that required skill in a style of racing that I had witnessed with my own eyes and therefore better understood.

So, yeah — you might say that I have a few opinions on the value that street racing brings to the future of the IRL.

Now, before you start throwing rotten tomatoes:  in no way am I advocating a schedule that is entirely built on road and street courses.  In fact, I don’t even want a schedule that’s heavy on road and street courses.  That road has been travelled, and it didn’t work.

But let’s be fair:  an all-oval series has also been attempted, and it also didn’t work.  And there are good reasons why that’s the case.

Based on the attendance numbers, the money that was flowing, and the memories that are so often rehashed time and again by those who lived it, there’s no question that the late 1980s through mid 1990s were the zenith of this branch of motor racing.  And the reason it worked then is the same reason that the IRL is trending back to it now:  the world already has a world-class racing series that runs exclusively on road and street circuits, and a top-level racing series already exists in the U.S. that’s heavily focused on oval racing.  CART in the early ‘90s scared the socks off of Bernie Ecclestone and the Frances because the diversity in the schedule perfectly filled a gap in the middle of those two extremes:  to be a champion in CART, you had to be the best at both styles of racing, and the lure of that challenge attracted the best drivers in the world to our shores.

And so, as the IZOD IndyCar Series comes back around to this type of schedule – if it’s done right – we should be witness to the best talent pool available on tracks that have sufficient variety and quality of racing to make everyone feel they’re getting a fair balance of their favorite form of the sport.

But even with that established, it still leaves the question open of why it’s necessary to hold races in concrete caverns when there are so many great road courses on this continent that aren’t on the schedule.

The answer is simple.  Ovals and road courses are fantastic venues that offer their own unique race-weekend experiences.  But for those events, you have to convince people to come to the racing.  That can be a challenge, particularly in markets where the interest in open-wheel racing is low to non-existent.

At a street course, though, you take the racing to the people.  And that’s where the key difference lies; that’s a benefit that only a street course can provide.

Dropping a weekend of racing in the middle of a bustling metropolis has a massive impact.  It generates media coverage by default, alters traffic and public transit patterns, and puts the sights, sounds and smells of the event within an arm’s reach of tens of thousands of people – it becomes nigh on impossible to ignore.

And the market that a street race can reach is very different from any other circuit type on offer.  The people who live in cities today are young, hip, and cosmopolitan.  This is a group of potential fans that this sport is hungry for, and it also happens to be the exact group that the Series will be looking to draw in with the marketing around IZOD’s title sponsorship.  Eventually, if these people can be hooked, they might be willing to travel to the middle of nowhere to attend races.  But it’s very unlikely that we’ll get them to do that without putting the product right in front of their noses first.

On top of that, no other venue offers the general entertainment value to a fan that a street race does.  Within ten minutes of the track in Toronto, you’ll find restaurants, bars, clubs, hotels, shopping, live theatre, a baseball stadium, and the CN Tower — and that list is just a start.  Attending a race in the middle of a city turns the entire weekend into an event — a destination, even.  Here, a fan can be fully entertained from the moment the gates open on Friday morning until well into the wee hours of Sunday night without ever stepping foot into a passenger car.  Heck, we can even get you to and from either airport with public transit if you decide to visit from out of town.  From the attending fan’s perspective, no other type of race event is easier.

And a street race has a unique and beautiful effect on its devout:  the personal connection with the course itself.  Once a street circuit stays at a consistent venue for a few years, it becomes interweaved into the consciousness of the populace.  I defy you to find a single race fan in the city of Toronto who hasn’t plowed the pedal into the floor on Lakeshore Boulevard on a sunny summer day.  The course itself becomes a part of the fabric of the city, and passing over it at any other time of year evokes memories of race weekends and creates a strong relationship with the racing in a way that can’t be found anywhere else.

However, it would be unfairly biased to ignore the fact that not every street race has been a barn-burner over the years.  There are some key factors that are consistent among the most successful events that should be considered when deciding which ones belong on the schedule:

  • The circuit must be well-designed. This almost goes without saying.  Nobody wants to watch a parade, and many street circuits have come and gone over the years that otherwise seemed viable simply because the racing stunk.  The ones that have been consistently successful have several solid passing zones, each with plenty of space for run-off areas to give the drivers a comfort zone.  There also needs to be room for flexibility in allowing the track to evolve as may become necessary due to changes in technology or the layout of the host city itself.
  • There must be a large potential market to be reached. The Grand Prix of Long Beach serves the Greater Los Angeles area and its population of over 17.5 million; the race at Exhibition Place is within easy access of the Greater Toronto Area’s six million people; the potential new race in Baltimore would put an event within ground transit travel distance of the entire Eastern Seaboard and over 60 million potential fans.  There have been exceptions, but as a general rule, starting with a large base population offers a greater chance of finding enough interested people to walk through the gates and keep the event viable.
  • A promoter must be in place that knows how to make contact with this unique market. This really can’t be emphasized enough.  Convincing urbanites to attend a street race in their own backyard is a completely different proposition from getting people to drive to a track in the middle of nowhere.  It requires sideshow events that aren’t as necessary in other markets and a focused knowledge of the advertising methods that work best in the city in question.  (A note to the promoters in Toronto:  next year, some ads in the subway and a billboard on the Gardiner would be nice.)

Once all of these criteria are met, well-planned street races can be among the greatest assets the IZOD IndyCar Series has, and keeping them as part of a well-balanced schedule is essential if the IRL is to return American open-wheel racing to its former glory.

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