IndyCar’s days at Chicagoland appear numbered

IndyCar commentary — By on August 9, 2010 10:10 pm
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(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)

*crickets chirping*
*bullfrogs croaking*
*mosquitoes buzzing*

The preceding message has been brought to you by the poor chap working in Storage Room B at Chicagoland Speedway assigned to the menial task of promoting the IZOD IndyCar Series weekend this year. (Insert image of Milton from Office Space here.)  Come 2011, you can likely eliminate the crickets and mosquitoes part.

Chicagoland Speedway confirmed this morning that they will host the opening round of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship on September 18, 2011.  And, once again, it appears likely that International Speedway Corporation (ISC) will send the IZOD IndyCar Series packing in an effort to bolster the status of its NASCAR event.

For an event that by most reports only filled about 50,000 of the track’s 72,000 spectator capacity, it seems a bit odd to reward Chicagoland Speedway with a coveted spot in the Sprint Cup Playoff.  One could certainly make the argument that moving the NASCAR race to the Chase isn’t a reward so much as a desperate attempt to make the people of the Chicago region (and the entire upper Midwest, for that matter) care about NASCAR again.  For the first few years after opening in 2001, the track had no problem selling all of its Track Packs, which are season tickets that require anyone wishing to purchase race tickets for the NASCAR weekend to also purchase tickets for the IndyCar weekend.  As the IndyCar weekend always followed the NASCAR weekend, many NASCAR fans were upset that they had to purchase tickets to an event that they no intention of attending.  Even worse, many IndyCar fans wanting to purchase tickets after the NASCAR weekend were forced to buy tickets for events that had already taken place.  None of this mattered to Chicagoland or ISC, though, as it was money in their pockets and gave them the chance to artificially boost their attendance figures.

However, desperate times have called for desperate measures. After hearing complaints from fans for several years, the track dropped their long-standing policy of forcing patrons to purchase tickets to all events for the 2010 racing season. Of course, the track couldn’t go all the way toward fan-friendly and allow fans to simply purchase tickets for a single NASCAR race. Instead, they were required to purchase tickets for the entire NASCAR weekend, so anyone wanting to attend the Sprint Cup race on Saturday night also had to purchase tickets for the Nationwide race on Friday. The response was swift and immediate — and unfortunately for Chicagoland, ISC, and NASCAR, it was a firm “we’re still not interested.” On a gorgeous July evening with few other local events to compete against, Chicagoland Speedway suffered its largest attendance drop since racing began nine years ago.

Given the difficulty in drawing a Chicago crowd to a track that sits less than an hour from downtown and the heavily populated western and northwestern suburbs, it makes sense to give the track something new to market apart from being just another event in NASCAR’s 26-race preseason.  The problem is that NASCAR and ISC have violated the #1 rule of Chicago event planning — never, never, NEVER compete against the Chicago Bears.  NASCAR can call themselves the #2 spectator sport in America until they are blue in the face, but against the Bears, NASCAR will look sillier than Ryan Briscoe going chin-to-chest with Justin Wilson.  (The sad part for NASCAR is that this could have been avoided by scheduling their race on a Saturday night, when the stiffest competition would likely be an NCAA football game.)

At any rate, the resulting fallout of the NASCAR move — at least as far as we are concerned from an open-wheel standpoint — is that Chicagoland Speedway will no longer be hosting the IZOD IndyCar Series in late August or early September.  I stand by my belief that if Chicago’s baseball teams can sell 40,000+ tickets for 162 games over the course of five months and the Bears can sell around 80,000 tickets apiece for eight games over four months (10 if you include preseason games), Chicagoland Speedway should be able to sell 70,000 tickets each for two events over a three- to four-week period – especially if one of them is the aforementioned #2 spectator sport in America with over 75 million fans.  But regardless of this logic, Chicagoland Speedway President Craig Rust has already announced that his track will not be hosting IndyCar in late August.  “Obviously, we want to focus on our new Chase event,” Rust states. “We have every intention of relocating that event and are working with the IRL for a date in 2011.”  In other words, NASCAR will continue to be the priority for this NASCAR-owned track, and if they can find a date that doesn’t disrupt their NASCAR events in any way, the IICS can come and play, too.

Given the unwritten rule that ISC tracks require at least six weeks between NASCAR and IndyCar events, let’s assume that August 7, 2011, is the latest date that Chicagoland would be willing to allow an IndyCar race.  A couple of weeks ago, my esteemed colleague Steph reported that the August 7th date was already confirmed for Baltimore. However, Steph spoke with IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard this past weekend at Mid-Ohio, and he revealed that the August 7th date for Baltimore is not quite as confirmed as we had been led to believe, saying that it “could change depending on NASCAR and the baseball schedule.”  Randy also went on record this weekend as saying that, as much as the teams and the Series would like to continue with the current schedule format with blocks of twisties and ovals, good events wouldn’t be dropped to maintain such a system.  Could he have been hinting at moving Chicago into the middle of a road-course block?  According to Steph’s proposed schedule (which shouldn’t be taken as remotely official in any way), New Hampshire’s (apparently) confirmed date of July 31st puts it in the middle of a group of twisties.  It makes sense to run another oval at this time to make it worth the effort for the teams to change trim.

The August 7th date has a number of other benefits as well. In general, the Chicago sports scene is in a lull during this time of the year. The baseball season is roughly 100 games old by then, so fans are starting to feel a bit burnt out by the Boys of Summer (especially us Cubs fans, who will likely see our team out of contention by early May again next year). And the Bears kick off pre-season training camp around that time at Olivet College in Bourbonnais, about 40 minutes southeast of the track. With increased numbers of fans and media in the area for that, the IndyCar event could potentially pilfer some visitors and introduce them to some high-speed wheel-to-wheel action.

Additionally, the weather in the Chicago area is typically pretty good in the early August time frame.  Assuming that the Speedway would prefer to get some use out of the recently installed multimillion-dollar lighting system, an evening race would likely be quite comfortable. The main problem is that a true night race, starting under the lights, would need to begin somewhere around 8:30 PM.  Given the outcry over the 9:10 PM local time start in 2009, it’s understandable that Chicagoland officials would rather drop the green flag closer to 7:30 or 8:00.

If the IZOD IndyCar Series and Chicagoland Speedway can’t come to terms on an early August date, the next most logical solution would be to run in late June or early July.  Steph dropped the Mid-Ohio date into the June 26th slot since Iowa’s traditional weekend (if you can call it that after four years) is June 19th and Randy Bernard has expressed his desire to avoid running over the Fourth of July weekend.  However, that was before it was revealed that Baltimore might be moving, which means that Mid-Ohio could retain the early August date that it’s held for the past few years and allow Chicago to take that June 26th opening.

My greatest concern for a late June IndyCar race at Chicagoland is that it will pull from much of the same market as both Indianapolis and Iowa, which would precede it by four weeks and one week respectively.  It is true that each of these tracks offers a distinctively different style of racing, but saturating the market is a serious concern — and that doesn’t even consider the possibility that Milwaukee could return to the schedule if Bernard gets his wish.

The only other time that makes any sense at all for Chicagoland on the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule is prior to the Month of May.  Unfortunately, that would be a tenuous situation at best.  No one at IndyCar is saying so, but the race in São Paulo is expected by most to be run on May 1st next year.  Given the logistics behind getting the cars to and from Brazil, the Series is highly unlikely to run on the weekend immediately preceding or following São Paulo.  Two weeks prior to the proposed Brazil date is the traditional Long Beach weekend, and it’s difficult to think that the IICS would ask the City of Long Beach to acquiesce to the needs of ISC.  The weekend prior to Long Beach is open (at least according to Steph’s educated prediction), but putting Chicago in that spot would then have the season start with four consecutive weekends and put a single oval in the middle of three road/street courses before allowing for a week off to prepare for Brazil — an unlikely scenario at best.  Furthermore, Chicago weather in April can be downright miserable with it not being unusual at all to endure rain every day for two to three weeks.  Following four years of bad spring weather at Kansas Speedway, the Series would be wise to avoid scheduling events in the Midwest during this period if at all possible.

So, what can we realistically expect?  Regardless of when the IZOD IndyCar Series visits Chicagoland Speedway (unless they do something suicidal, such as agreeing to follow NASCAR with a weekend in October), it will be the recipient of leftovers and scraps of marketing efforts by the Chicagoland marketing team.  The IndyCar weekend is viewed as a distraction from their efforts to promote the NASCAR weekend, and now that they’ve landed a Chase date, we will see even less promotion for the IICS event next year.  Chicagoland Speedway already claims to be promoting the 2010 IndyCar weekend, but I can assure you that, in my many hours of the driving Chicago-area freeways and tollways, I have yet to see a single billboard or hear any radio promotion for the event.  In fact, a quick glance at Chicagoland’s Facebook and Twitter accounts will show you everything they feel you need to know:  NASCAR, NASCAR, NASCAR.  Since NASCAR left town on July 10, the Chicagoland Facebook Fan Page has seen approximately 16 NASCAR-themed posts while IndyCar has been the subject of two, and IndyCar mentions on Twitter have been completely non-existent.  It’s plainly obvious that Chicagoland Speedway isn’t interested in promoting the IICS event in the least (which seems odd since the track is sitting on a lot of very expensive land that one would think they’d prefer to make use of on more than one weekend per year).

The inevitable conclusion:  as neither NASCAR nor ISC has fixed the problems behind the decline in NASCAR attendance on a weekly and yearly basis, nor have they realized that competing against the Bears is as misguided as Helio making adjustments to Charles’s collar, the Chicago fans will be unimpressed by the feigned prestige of their local NASCAR event being a Chase Race and attendance will once again be somewhere between disappointing and lackluster.  Then, in the resulting shift of priorities to make improvements on the NASCAR side, the officials at ISC and Chicagoland Speedway will conclude that the IndyCar event is no longer providing a good return on investment (i.e., is drawing too much attention from their NASCAR-centric mission). Therefore, I predict that August 6, 2011, will be the final IZOD IndyCar Series race at Chicagoland Speedway. It is greatly disappointing, and there are few people who want to see the Chicagoland IndyCar event become successful as much as I do.  But like ESPN, ISC has obviously established a partnership, and IndyCar has dropped too many crumbs in the bed to be welcome any longer.

But should Chicagoland fail to make the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule, let’s talk about Milwaukee…

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