PRUETT: Will everything be awesome at COTA?

Image by Jake Galstad/LAT

PRUETT: Will everything be awesome at COTA?

IndyCar

PRUETT: Will everything be awesome at COTA?

COTA, you have an awesome facility and 20 amazing turns for the IndyCar Series to use when it makes its debut there next year. You also have an attendance problem that will leave me concerned until the checkered flag waves over the March 24 race.

In adding Circuit of The Americas to its calendar, IndyCar will need to succeed where other domestic series have failed. Outside of the big traveling crowds that flood the Austin, Texas-based road course for Formula 1 and MotoGP, the sprawling countryside property has struggled to draw the tiniest of crowds for other series.

The Pirelli World Challenge series puts on incredible races, but has resigned itself to performing in front of family and friends during its visits to COTA. Monsoon rains have blighted things on more than one occasion in March for PWC at COTA, and with the series returning next year on the first weekend of March, we know there’s no chance of an IndyCar/PWC doubleheader to try and draw more fans.

Even the world’s biggest sports car series have tried and failed to build a following at COTA. With the awesome “Lone Star Le Mans” endurance combo event of IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the FIA World Endurance Championship, which included free music and entertainment between the main features in its final iteration, it was a hot, steamy ghost town. Australia’s V8 Supercars also made the trip from Down Under in search of an international home at COTA. Despite having multi-year plans for Texas, the V8s made one appearance and were one-and-done.

Sparse crowd for FIA WEC’s final start at COTA in September 2017. (Image by May/JEP/LAT)

Of all the series that have come and gone from COTA, the FIA WEC raises the most concerns regarding IndyCar. At its peak with the insane Audi, Porsche, and Toyota LMP1 Hybrids that looked amazing, cost more than half the cars on the F1 grid, and flew around the 3.4-mile circuit at fearsome speeds, the WEC should have been a smash hit.

New and different to F1, the WEC had the three big LMP1 auto brands and those from its manufacturer-rich GT classes spending heavily in the local market to draw attention to its spectacle. And despite the sizable investments, nobody cared. Although the IMSA+WEC show grew slightly during its run from 2014-2016, they split in 2017, held separate races at COTA and saw crowds disappear altogether. Both left Texas off their respective 2018 calendars.

Having been there for most of the non-F1/MotoGP events since COTA opened, the main takeaway I’ve had is how, based on attendance, there’s a sheer lack of local interest for road racing.

F1 and MotoGP have demonstrated how hordes of fans will fly from international destinations or drive across the country to see open-wheel and two-wheel action, but what we haven’t seen is a thriving home-grown fanbase filing in from Texas and the surrounding states to support everything else COTA has offered.

If it was simply a case of spending on advertising, the IMSA+WEC weekends would have been huge. And if we’re honest, Texas Motor Speedway hasn’t been troubled with an excessive number of fans for many years. The short-lived return to the streets of Houston was another reminder of good intentions being met with limited local enthusiasm at the box office.

The sincere hope for COTA, and TMS, is for the state of Texas to fall in love with IndyCar once more.

Fans file into the stands ahead of COTA’s F1 race. (Image by Sam Bloxham/LAT)

Granted, there’s nothing wrong with the series gambling on being able to break into the Austin market. And if you’re a fan of IndyCar’s current formula, the cars and drivers will put on a hell of a show over and around COTA’s elevation changes and sweeping turns. IndyCar fans win with COTA on the schedule, period.

But in the bigger picture, where IndyCar needs to demonstrate strength and growth to increase its value, the series cannot afford to turn on the TV cameras and show the world it can’t draw a meaningful crowd.

COTA suffers from the same problem faced by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. With anything less than a completely packed house, the track looks barren — as if they forgot to open the gates. In the final years of the IMSA+WEC rounds, artful camera work was used whenever possible to cut empty grandstands from view, and it was still somewhat hard to mask the absence of fans.

Where others have failed, IndyCar and COTA will need to come up with a grand new plan to avoid repeating that history. Staring at the pile of series that cut ties with COTA, the odds on IndyCar’s Austin gamble are long, and to win, it will need to crack a code that has remained hidden for too many of its predecessors. Three hours north of COTA, IndyCar has a long-standing oval event that needs to fill a lot of empty seats. Now it risks having the same issue — only worse — at a second Texas destination where a worrying trend cannot be overlooked.

I can’t wait to see the IndyCar field in action at COTA. I also hope it isn’t another short-term experiment that does nothing to help the series.

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