If last night was indeed the last time the IZOD IndyCar Series races at Chicagoland Speedway, the Series certainly went out with a bang. Unfortunately, on a picture-perfect evening at the track about 45 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, not many people showed up to view it.
I have been harshly critical of Chicagoland Speedway for the past month about the lack of promotion for the IICS weekend, and judging by the mostly empty grandstands, I was not the only person to miss the message they claimed to be sending. One car owner estimated that attendance for last night’s PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil Indy 300 was a scant 8,000 people. That might be a bit low, but it’s certainly not an unreasonable estimate. Sadly, such estimates would be in line with the finales at Phoenix and California in the years of Series past. What do those tracks all have in common? You guessed it — they’re all owned by ISC.
For their part, Chicagoland Speedway claims that they have been promoting this race since the beginning of the year. Let me say it again: that’s just not true. It’s obvious that I’m not the only person that sees it this way, either. As just one example among many, the Chicagoland Speedway Twitter feed (@chicagolndspdwy) largely ignored the IndyCar portion of the weekend all day on Friday, failing to even remark that Ryan Briscoe had won the pole position during that day’s qualifying session, and yet there was significant coverage of the NASCAR Truck race. A good chunk of Saturday was spent doing damage control after several Twitter followers also called them out on their lack of promotion.
At the end of the day, the crowd was miserable, and the blame for this falls squarely at the feet of Chicagoland Speedway. Yes, I understand this is the same car that the Series has been racing for eight years and that perhaps the fans are getting tired of it. Nonetheless, Chicagoland Speedway sits in a metropolitan area of more than 9.5 million people. Telling IndyCar fans that you couldn’t get more than 10,000 people to the track on a beautiful Saturday night isn’t good enough, Chicagoland Speedway — you simply didn’t try!
A number of weeks ago, when I first raised the possibility of the IICS not returning to Chicagoland to Curt Cavin, Curt responded by saying that he felt Chicagoland was safe on the schedule with Craig Rust as the president because Craig has been a fan and a friend of the Series over the years, particularly when he was president of Watkins Glen International. It’s time for everyone — from Joe Race Fan to Curt Cavin to Randy Bernard — to realize that the IZOD IndyCar Series has no friends in ISC. Craig Rust was supposed to be a friend of the Series, but he’s not. Joie Chitwood was supposed to be a friend of the Series, but he’s not. If Tony George himself became the president at an ISC-controlled track, even he would not be a friend of the Series. The fact is that ISC exists solely to provide locales for NASCAR to race. I truly believe that the France family sees ISC’s profitability as a secondary interest to providing guaranteed, likely over-inflated sanctioning fees to the NASCAR side of the family business. So long as seats remain empty at the NASCAR events, 98% of the ISC focus will be to fill the NASCAR seats before turning attention to anything else. Now, it appears ISC will host no IICS events in 2011 (unless Las Vegas falls through and IndyCar settles for a season finale at Auto Club Speedway). Will NASCAR seen increased attendance at their ISC tracks? My prediction is no.
The other major story floating around the paddock this weekend, of course, was the talk of owners rejecting the 2012 ICONIC Committee chassis selection. We reported on Friday that we were unable to find an owner or team representative to substantiate these rumors. Then, on Saturday, the usual Randy Bernard media Q&A session turned into a formal press conference with Randy and Dennis Reinbold, co-owner of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Speaking most directly to the rumors of owner revolt in the Series, Reinbold specifically called such stories “highly overexaggerated and greatly inaccurate.” Reinbold went on to say that, although he and several other owners publicly expressed their support for the DeltaWing project, no one’s head is hanging in defeat and no one is trying to bring the Series down because the DeltaWing was not chosen. “There’s a bit of a misconception that [the Delta Wing supporters] are walking around upset that it didn’t get chosen,” said Reinbold. “That’s just not the case.” When asked specifically if he felt the concerns and goals of the owners were addressed during the ICONIC Committee process, Reinbold simply said, “Yes, I think so.”
To his credit, it appears that Robin Miller has once again sniffed out a sensitive subject in the IICS paddock that is based in solid fact. But it appears that, in this case, Robin may have sensationalized it to a degree. Robin has broken many major stories in the past few years — unification, Tony Kanaan to Ganassi and then back to Andretti, the ouster of Tony George as the IMS Chairman — but the cards don’t always fall exactly as Robin projects, and that appears to be case here. It obvious that there have been some discussions, possibility heated and contentious, between the IICS and the team owners. What there does not appear to be, however, is a unified front by the team owners to formally reject the selection of the 2012 chassis program. In fact, according to one team owner, there is little consistency from the owners in their desires regarding the 2012 chassis, and their list of “wants” and “wishes” changes daily. (Watch for more details on this in a story to be published on More Front Wing later this week.)
All indications are that the team owners, the IICS, and Dallara will continue to work together to hammer out details in the near future regarding the 2012 chassis. The one common theme, and perhaps the only area where most of the owners seem to agree, is that bring Tony Cotman on board to head the project is a very positive development. With his experience overseeing the Champ Car DP-01 roll-out and acceptance among his peers to represent the interests of both the IICS and the team owners, Cotman seems to have been given the keys to drive this vehicle by all parties.
Additionally, we continue to hear nothing but high praise for the job that Randy Bernard has done to stay above the cesspool of political games that never seems to stop swirling around American open-wheel racing. While Bernard was kindly excluded from the owners’ meeting that took place at Infineon Raceway last weekend, he has been diligent about fostering communication between all parties and ensuring that everyone involved has the resources needed to do their jobs in the best way possible. Randy specifically stated that Tony Cotman has the green light to hire anyone he feels he needs to see this project through. One team representative I spoke with over the weekend noted that one of the best things that Cotman and the IICS could do would be to hire a European consultant whose job is to foster relations with engine manufacturers over there. Whether such an idea has been floated to Cotman is not clear at this point, but its validity is hard to argue.
Looking back at the weekend as a whole, it may very well be seen as a turning point in the 2012 chassis discussion. It’s obvious that something has gone on behind the scenes (as they say, where there’s smoke, there’s fire). Regardless of the amount of discontent — whether it was just a handful of grumblings or a full-blown owners’ revolt — it appears that lines of communication have been completely restored, and all parties are now saying the right things (at least publicly). We can hope that encouraging news will continue to emerge at Kentucky next weekend and will put an end to the rumors that great unrest and another potential civil war might be on IndyCar’s horizon.
I expect that Steph will provide much more analysis on the actual on-track action from yesterday’s event, but I want to call out a couple of guys who deserve great kudos. First, Ed Carpenter’s run last night was nothing short of spectacular. For the first half of the race, Ed ran wheel-to-wheel with the leaders and looked as if he had never been away. He literally had three laps at speed this weekend before the green flag flew: one warm-up lap and two qualifying laps. It’s unfortunate that a pit speed infraction cost him a shot at a great finish, but a large number of IICS fans look forward to his return next weekend at Kentucky.
Secondly, credit goes to Alex Lloyd and his Dale Coyne crew. After cutting a tire early in the race, Alex was able to stay on the lead lap and then drive his way into a very competitive top-10 spot before gearbox trouble sidelined him.
As I wrap up the weekend, I do so on a bittersweet note. Chicagoland Speedway has been a great place to watch IICS races for a number of years. I have attended myself since 2003 and have enjoyed every one. However, it’s painfully obvious that the IZOD IndyCar Series is no longer welcome. Continuing to attempt to hold races here will only hold the Series back and claim a spot on the schedule that could be filled by a track that really want to promote an IICS event. I will miss Chicagoland greatly, but there are many other tracks I look forward to attending next year. Maybe Chicagoland will find its way back eventually, but for now, we bid a sad adieu.