MILLER: Right place, wrong time

CART at Laguna Seca in 1999. Image by Levitt/LAT

MILLER: Right place, wrong time

Insights & Analysis

MILLER: Right place, wrong time


It was all set up. Jay Frye wanted to move the 2019 season finale to an oval in IndyCar’s strongest fan base. Mark Miles liked the idea, and Gateway was on board to be the host.

But the majority of car owners squawked that St. Louis wasn’t cosmopolitan or exotic enough to end the season, and their sponsors wanted to be wined and dined on the west coast. Didn’t matter if it was Sonoma or Laguna Seca, but it needed to be one of those destinations because, after all, what’s more important than where you play golf, sip wine and eat dinner? Why would the actual race ever come into play?

So, instead of running for the title on an oval and giving yourself a chance for some drama (remember Josef Newgarden hip-checking teammate Simon Pagenaud out of the way for the win at Gateway last August?) before a packed house (30,000) on national television (NBC) in front of a crowd that actually follows and appreciates IndyCar racing, the 2019 season will instead conclude at Laguna Seca.

And if you thought passing was a premium at Sonoma, wait until you see Laguna, the place where Max Papis won a CART race in 2001 and may not have passed a car on the track, and instead made a multitude of pit stops that all worked him to the front.

Now, it’s great that the WeatherTech Speedway is back on the schedule. It used to pack ‘em in CART’s heyday and it gave us Alex Zanardi’s infamous pass on the Corkscrew in 1996, but it’s another tight, narrow, no-straightaway road course that was built 60 years ago for sports cars.

Running Laguna is fine, it just shouldn’t be the last race of the year for double points when you have an option like Gateway.

“You’ve got to finish the season on an oval. It’s a lot smarter than what we’re doing,” said A.J. Foyt on Wednesday night from his home in Houston where he’s recovering from back surgery.

“IndyCar is known for oval racing, not road racing, and it’s still our best shows, and I can guarantee you my sponsor [ABC Supply] would rather have a good show on national television than some parade.”

Amen Reverend Foyt, you are preaching to the choir.

The last race of the year to decide the championship needs atmosphere (it felt like a big deal last year from 4 p.m. until the checkered flag), paying customers (Gateway’s ticket sales have been steady and it has already confirmed three busloads of fans from Indianapolis) and a fighting chance to put on a good short-track fight (think Iowa if this aero kit responds the same way in Madison, Ill.).

Gateway, 2017. Image by Abbott/LAT

One driver said it was too much of an eyesore to host the last race, and I said the TV cameras show the St. Louis skyline and track – not the old landfill down the road. And there are plenty of nice restaurants in downtown St. Louis to entertain sponsors. Better yet, take your sponsors to Laguna, but make it the next-to-last race and give us Gateway to wrap things up.

Nobody ever showed up at Sonoma, and the last few Champ Car races at Laguna were poorly attended, so what’s going to change?

Car owners are the lifeblood of IndyCar and there are a bunch of dedicated ones in today’s paddock. They don’t make any money (maybe one or two do), and good sponsorship is tough to find and sometimes tougher to keep, so I understand wanting to make sure their backers are happy.

Still, wouldn’t they relish a chance to have a couple million people watch their cars in action on NBC? Isn’t that exposure one of the reasons they got into IndyCar? Isn’t that more important than where they eat dinner?

Maybe it’s not and maybe that’s why we’re trading one beautiful but boring road course for another next year in California. Or, maybe this racy aero kit will allow the cars to race better and it will be a pleasant surprise, like Barber Motorsports Park.

Ovals, despite being IndyCar’s heritage, are a tough sell nowadays, yet Gateway has the leadership and sponsorship with the Bommarito Automotive Group to make it a winner and a keeper. IndyCar’s heart is in the Heartland, and this is a missed opportunity to make this race even more special.

But I hear the crab legs are much better in Monterey.