MILLER: Ovals are on the ropes – but that's not Penske's fault

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MILLER: Ovals are on the ropes – but that's not Penske's fault

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MILLER: Ovals are on the ropes – but that's not Penske's fault

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The 2021 IndyCar schedule had only been officially released for a few minutes when a torrent of disgruntled fans lashed out on email, texts, Twitter and forums. The gist of their bitching was that IndyCar had turned its back on ovals, and Roger Penske had betrayed the very heritage of open-wheel racing.

“IndyCar stuck it to Richmond again. Iowa got the shaft from Penske. Pocono wants a race but can’t get an audience. Kentucky is dying to bring IndyCar back. There is no reason Fontana can’t be part of the series.” Those were just a few of gems of wisdom from the “insiders” that claim to cherish IndyCar.

But here’s the reality: there are only three oval tracks on the 2021 schedule because either nobody wants to take a chance on promoting an IndyCar race, or The Captain had to draw the line at paying for playing. It’s got nothing to do with personal preference or stacking the deck; it’s the bottom line because oval-track racing in IndyCar and NASCAR is more of an endangered specie than ever before.

And the truth is that NASCAR pulled the plug on Richmond and has shut down Iowa while looking for a buyer, so that erased two tracks IndyCar wanted and was counting on for next year.

In the past 20 years, IndyCar, CART, Champ Car and the Indy Racing League have watched 19 ovals come and go. In 2003, Tony George’s series staged 16 races – all on ovals. When the IRL was part of the NASCAR ticket package at Chicago, Kentucky, Kansas and Texas it drew big crowds that diminished greatly after IndyCars were no longer part of the season-ticket promotion.

Milwaukee went from packed houses every year the week following the Indy 500 (even with CART through the late ‘90s when it didn’t run IMS) to smaller and smaller turnouts when IRL and CART shared the track and changed the dates every year. Michigan drew 78,000 in 1995, and was more than half-empty by 2007. Phoenix had 60,000 in 1995 and 6,000 by 2005. Fontana started out strong with 50,000 in 1997, but didn’t have 5,000 for its swansong in 2015 on a 100-degree day in June.

“I don’t know why, the racing is good, but people just don’t go to ovals anymore,” said Mario Andretti, who campaigned long and hard to keep Pocono on the calendar before it was dropped after 2019.

The Captain is a student of history and a big believer in traditions and the only reason IndyCar ran Texas and a doubleheader at Iowa this year was because they were a necessity and he paid for it.

“At Iowa we rented the track from France family, just a lease, and from an economic standpoint it was not a successful situation, but we had to do it,” said Penske, who also helped promote twin bills at Road America and Mid-Ohio after the pandemic wreaked havoc on the schedule and led to COTA, Long Beach, Barber, Portland and Laguna Seca being cancelled. “It was a stepping stone to keep the series going.”

It was believed Penske looked into buying Iowa to keep it on the schedule, but a financial discovery by his people supposedly made it even less appealing. “There is speculation that somebody might buy Iowa and we could rent it,” he said after last weekend’s Harvest GP doubleheader. “I thought it was a good track for us.”

There’s a packed grandstand over Jacques Villeneuve’s shoulder as he makes a visit to the pits at Michigan in 1995, but a decade later, half of those seats were empty. Motorsport Images

IndyCar president Jay Frye leased Phoenix for three years (2016-2018) and tried to make a go of it but nobody showed up, and he was instrumental in doing the three-year deal with Richmond.

“We had an open test at Richmond and we really wanted to go back there,” he said. “We want ovals if they can work for everyone.”

In terms of recent history, only the World Wide Technology Raceway (aka Gateway) in Madison, Ill. has come in and held its own thanks to a gung-ho owner (Curtis Francois) and sponsor (John Bommarito), plus a savvy promoter (Chris Blair) who understands you’ve got to give the paying customers as much entertainment as possible.

“Depending on what happens with COVID, we’ve got to be flexible,” said Penske. “I think St. Louis would run two races if necessary, and we’ve got the Speedway road course for a backup plan if needed. Kentucky and Chicago (both dropped from the 2021 NASCAR schedule) might be an option some day, and there could be a resurgence in some of these ovals that aren’t going to be used (by NASCAR).”

What about a second oval race at IMS?

“I don’t think the generational customer would like that at all, and the Indianapolis 500 might well be the only oval we have next year – just like the old days,” Penske replied.

Other than Indy, the best draws for IndyCar remain Long Beach, Road America, Mid-Ohio, Barber and St. Pete, and newly-added Nashville will likely be a home run as well. Ovals are exciting as hell and the foundation of IndyCar racing but they’re out of favor, if not out of sight.

“I thought it was very important we got Texas to run a doubleheader in early May and give everyone a chance to get prepared for Indianapolis,” said Penske. “We’ve got to keep our diversity of ovals, street circuits and road courses and, like I said, we’ve got to be flexible if an oval makes sense to the series and fans.

“It’s ironic that NASCAR is going to have six road races next year, but I think overall we’re in good shape with our schedule. We just got a big vote of confidence from our engine manufacturers, our schedule is out, the rules are right and nobody has a two-second advantage. It’s up to the teams and drivers and that road race (Friday at IMS) was one of the best I’ve seen in 60 years. I’m excited about the future.”

As he should be, since there wouldn’t be one without him.

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