Q: Can you tell me why IndyCars no longer race at Homestead, Portland, Surfers Paradise, Cleveland and a few others? Seems to me these were great venues and had some good races, but for whatever reason they get dropped from the schedule. Also, the IndyCar season ends too soon. They have the guys racing in blistering hot weather and then when the nice, cool fall weather comes, the schedule concludes. I’d like to see IndyCar racing continue at least until late October. Thank goodness we have the wonderful Petit Le Mans here in north Georgia in October! Different series, but a great weekend of racing. I enjoy your columns and especially your TV paddock interviews!
Sue Gray, Roswell, GA
RM: Well Portland is back on the schedule and runs next month, while downtown Surfers has grown up and is no longer accommodating for an IndyCar race. Homestead looked like it could return to replace Phoenix in 2019, but that’s probably not going to happen (and it wasn’t much a draw either). Cleveland was one of the best venues ever, and Mike Lanigan would promote it again in a heartbeat if he could score a sponsor but that’s the rub on most tracks – without a big title sponsor, it’s impossible to stage an oval race, while street courses can draw great crowds like Baltimore and still lose millions. A lot of us would like to see the season to until at least October and get Fontana back in the mix, but that’s not going to happen. And Road Atlanta has always been one of the top road courses, but IndyCar is wary of the run-offs and speeds.
Q: It should be obvious to most people that automobile racing is becoming less a real competitive event and more of a media buy. Sponsors rule in auto racing like in no other sport. Participants from the lowest to the highest levels of the sport are constantly looking for someone to pay for their ability to participate. The cars, as well as drivers and crews, are nothing more than advertising billboards, and at the top level there are probably as many advertising and public relations people as there are participants at an event. Finding a large company with a big advertising budget whose CEO loves auto racing is like finding a gold mine, until the board of directors figures out racing is a large money pit with little real results in terms of sales or brand awareness. Television has caused racing to become this because events need people watching, not just in the stands, but mostly on TV, so sponsors get exposure. The events need to be close and exciting to capture the TV audience’s attention.
No other sports fans dislike dominance like auto racing fans. People love a Triple Crown winner or an undefeated football team, but not a driver or team that wins all the time. Sanctioning bodies adjust the rules to increase the competition – there are spec series, BoP, wave-arounds, green-white-checkers, full-course yellows and rules for who-knows-what to even the competition and make the last 10 or 20 lap of an event compelling so everyone is excited and eager to run out and buy all the sponsors’ products. Or at least watch the next event. Could auto racing survive if it had to be self-supporting? Would it be better if teams and drivers were paid from only what they earned in each event? What active drivers would still be in IndyCar?
RM: You make lots of good points, but here’s some things to consider. Even though IndyCar racing pales in comparison to NASCAR and F1 in terms of budgets, it’s still a multi-million dollar proposition that relies on sponsors’ because the purses and or TV ratings/money cannot sustain teams like NASCAR and F1 receive. And IndyCar purses are a joke (including Indy)’ so other than the Leader’s Circle, sponsors are the lifeblood. Rossi earned $30,000 for his team last weekend so, no drivers could not sustain a living on what they make. It’s all about your salary. Most drivers have to bring sponsor money and take a cut of that to make a living. Nobody has had better racing than IndyCar the past few years, but obviously it’s not enough because NASCAR gets three-four million viewers watching a ho-hum cookie cutter that either Harvick, Busch or Truex win and IndyCar struggles to get 400,000 (which is going to change next year when NBC takes over everything and has seven or eight races on NBC). When Team Penske or Ganassi dominated, it didn’t hurt the crowds – CART races were packed all through the 1990s and 2000s – and F1 has had the same winners forever, but still draws the largest audience in sports. Thankfully, other than those stupid double-points, IndyCar’s only gimmick has been push-to-pass, so I pray it remains in its current pure form and rides the wave of having a real TV partner like NBC.