Allow time to determine oval racing’s future

IndyCar commentary — By on December 9, 2011 11:28 am

It’s the time of year when seasonal carols sing of bells ringing.  But for many in the INDYCAR community, the only bells they’re hearing are the sounding of alarms.

The season-ending event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been removed from the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule.

It’s the return of CART!

We’re witnessing the death of open-wheel oval racing as we know it!

That last point may be true — but if it is, it will only be because oval racing purists ran out of patience for letting INDYCAR properly resolve its issues.

We don’t yet know the exact reason for LVMS’s exclusion from next season’s calendar, but it’s fair to make some assumptions.

The initial reaction is to assume that it’s a PR move related directly to Dan Wheldon’s death.  Further consideration renders this conclusion highly unlikely.  If the occurrence of a fatality alone were enough to drop a track from the schedule, open-wheel cars would have had off-years at Homestead, Fontana, Laguna Seca, and even Indianapolis in seasons not all that long past, and that has never happened.

What we do know is that the investigation into the cause of Wheldon’s death is approaching completion, and some combination of these factors will almost certainly be determined to be at fault:  pack racing; corner banking inappropriate for the speeds achieved by INDYCARs; and/or, the nature of the catch fencing design at LVMS.

The first point is already being addressed in the development of the DW12.  Randy Bernard and Will Phillips have publicly stated as much.

But the second and third points aren’t quite so simple.  If it’s determined that high-banked ovals simply aren’t appropriate for INDYCARs — which, to be fair, is something we knew to a degree already — then there’s nothing to be done except to avoid those tracks.  Yes, it means that the slate of ovals available for INDYCAR racing will be narrowed — possibly significantly, depending on what degree of banking is deemed acceptable — but there will still be options, and INDYCAR will simply need to concentrate its oval-racing efforts on those.

And then there’s the third scenario.  If the investigation deems that the banking at LVMS wasn’t a significant enough factor in the October 16th incident to warrant banning INDYCARs but that the design of the catch fencing is, then that opens an entirely new and very complicated can of worms.

It could be that SMI is interested in doing what’s necessary to keep INDYCAR racing at its tracks, or the investigation could reveal that the current catch fencing design is inappropriate for all forms of motor racing and that a complete refit is heavily in SMI’s best interests.  In that case, these tracks may be ready for INDYCAR to return in 2013 and we’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about.

However, it is also possible that the investigation will find that the current catch fencing design is unsafe for open-wheel cars but is acceptable for other forms of racing.  In that event, SMI will be examining the potential return on the investment of installing entirely new catch fencing for the sole purpose of allowing INDYCAR to race at its tracks, and INDYCAR will have a whole lot of cajoling to do.  In this scenario, the end result of losing a slew of ovals and a solid business partner seems nearly inevitable.

Of course, there’s also the small problem that INDYCAR needs to be commercially viable enough that it either looks attractive to its available tracks such that they want to pursue INDYCAR events or that it can learn to hold its own well enough to rent facilities, do the necessary promotion, and draw a profit independently.

Either way, the future holds a lot of waiting and a lot of hard work.

The hard work is going to come from INDYCAR’s side.  Fences are likely already being mended with ISC to expand INDYCAR’s potential slate of oval tracks given that at least some SMI tracks may need to be abandoned.  On top of that, INDYCAR is going to need to do a massive rethink of how it approaches oval racing to the point that it may need to revolutionize motor racing promotion in America as we know it.  In fact, INDYCAR’s very survival in anything approaching its current state likely depends on its ability to do so.  (Let’s all breathe a sigh of relief that Randy Bernard is the man in charge at the moment.  INDYCAR is extremely fortunate that the ingenuity and acumen necessary to successfully pull this off are already present within its organization.)

The waiting part, on the other hand, needs to come from the outside — the teams, the media, and the fans.  These changes can happen, but they won’t happen overnight.  Perhaps the greatest risk INDYCAR faces right now is that people who see things they view as undesirable in the short-term (i.e., a shorter schedule with few ovals) will give up on the Series before the situation can be rectified.

INDYCAR is well-aware of its roots and what its existing supporters want to see.  If the people who have been supporting INDYCAR for years take one look at the 2012 schedule and say “there aren’t enough ovals, I’m out” before the pendulum can swing the other way, the outcome for INDYCAR will be disastrous.

But if this process can be given the time it needs to unfold naturally, and if people can view this time of transition for what it is — a short-term loss for a long-term gain — then INDYCAR can benefit greatly.  There were glimpses this past season into the potential that INDYCAR racing holds when things are done right:  crowds began to return to Indianapolis, and many thousands of new fans flocked to the streets of Baltimore.  If INDYCAR can properly resolve its issues and people can be kept from losing interest, not only will a solid foundation have been built for INDYCAR’s future, but it will have happened with an eye to resolving the safety issues that brought this position about in the first place and make motor racing safer for participants and observers alike.

That sounds like something worth waiting for, doesn’t it?

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