It’s not every day that an official press release from INDYCAR hits our inboxes at 6:07 AM. It was only appropriate that it was regarding the IZOD IndyCar Series race at Twin Ring Motegi. Such terrible timing has been a hallmark of this event since the IICS first visited the rural Japanese track in 2003 (and, quite honestly, since CART debuted there in 1998).
INDYCAR announced today that the IICS will not be returning to the track in 2012, citing differing business directions. This announcement should not be considered surprising, and few will be sad to see it go.
By all accounts, the odyssey to Twin Ring Motegi, located about two hours north of Tokyo, was one of the highlights of the schedule for teams, drivers and media. The picturesque track was literally carved out of a mountaintop and was purpose-built specifically to host American open-wheel racing. The IICS race is the only time the oval portion of the facility is used all year, though the road course is used by several development-car racing series and MotoGP.
However, while the race was embraced by the Series and Japanese race fans, the race never caught on with American fans and was generally considered a low-point of the season. The most glaring deficiency of the race was the time that it was run. Though the Saturday afternoon time slot worked well for the fans in Japan, few North American fans were willing to watch the race on TV at midnight eastern time on a Friday night. Predictably, the race drew abysmal ratings on any channel it was broadcast. Even worse, the fans who did tune in were generally subjected to a single-file fuel mileage race that featured little passing and failed to showcase the excitement of the IICS. Even if the race had been in the Heartland of America, convincing the American fans to watch would have been tough (just ask Gateway International Raceway).
Secondly, the race was often cited as a thank you to Honda for their generous support of the IICS. While that’s all well and good, such logic failed to save the IICS race at Nashville (the North American home of Bridgestone/Firestone), which was dropped following the 2008 season. With new engine manufacturers joining the series in 2012, it no longer makes sense for INDYCAR to travel all the way to Japan as a concession to Honda without giving such a luxury to newcomers Chevrolet and Lotus (though, admittedly, the thought of returning to MIS and going to a British track like Brands Hatch, Silverstone, or the Rockingham oval might be enough to justify keeping TRM back on the schedule).
Finally, and most importantly, Motegi’s position on the schedule destroyed any momentum that the IICS had built through the summer racing season in the lead-up to the season finale. In 2009, a great championship battle was fought all summer long between Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon, and Dario Franchitti. After a dramatic shoot-out at Chicagoland Speedway on August 29th, the IICS took three weeks off to prepare for its late-night race in Japan. (To be fair, the excessively long gap was due to the late removal of the Detroit event from that year’s schedule.) After few people tuned in for the Motegi race (which proved to be a turning point in Ryan Briscoe’s collapse that season), it was another three weeks before the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The attention of much of the dedicated fan base — let alone casual observers — was never recaptured.
Even in years when the gap is less long, travel to and from Japan still requires the series to hold only one event over the span of four weeks. This break can and should be filled by North American events that build on the summer momentum and lead directly into the Series finale without pause.
However, to continue to appease a significant portion of the American fan base, the race at Motegi must be replaced by at least one oval track, preferably in the eastern part of the country as Las Vegas Motor Speedway is assumed to be the closing race for the 2012 season. Hypothetically, this could be a perfect place to slot Michigan back onto the track if it can find a weekend that avoids University of Michigan football. MIS concludes its NASCAR schedule in mid-August each year. But with so many American oval tracks being owned by ISC (Michigan included) and relations between that organization and INDYCAR growing ever more tense, maintaining the 50/50 split of event types on the schedule is increasingly becoming a challenge.