Should IndyCar Give Up On The Northeast?

It’s a shame that the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season is already underway and there is still a great deal of uncertainty whether one of its scheduled events will actually take place. The Grand Prix of Boston scheduled for September 4th, is still dealing with resistance from a lot of the local residents that flat-out do not want the event to happen. Personally, I think it’ll happen – at least for this year. But after that, I think all bets are off.

Although the huge population in the Northeast seems to dictate that a series that is desperate for new fans should try and go there, I’m not sure that the Northeast is a ripe breeding ground for potentially new open-wheel fans.

Pocono Raceway sits about two hours from New York City and Philadelphia, the largest and sixth largest US markets. Yet the Tricky Triangle has been struggling to get twenty thousand people to attend a five-hundred mile IndyCar race there. My gut feeling is that if attendance does not dramatically improve there this August, there is not much chance that Pocono will be on the 2017 schedule.

Pocono is not the only northeastern venue to struggle with IndyCar attendance. Whether or not it was due to weather conditions, the much anticipated IndyCar return to New Hampshire International Speedway after a thirteen year absence was a complete flop. Baltimore was a popular destination among the teams and fans that liked to travel, but most of the locals disliked the inconvenience it brought to the downtown area. Controversial politics and a failure to meet the promised economic upturn in the Inner Harbor brought an end to that race in 2013 after only a three year run.

How many remember what I considered one of the worst events to ever appear on the schedule – the Meadowlands Grand Prix? That event ran from 1984 through 1991. The first two years, it ran in the parking lot around Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey – just across the river from New York City. After disappointing attendance and drivers complaining about the tight circuit, the layout was changed to go around Brendan Byrne Arena and even incorporated an interstate interchange into the course. It was painful to watch on TV and was apparently just as bad in person. Plans to move it to Manhattan never materialized and the event died a merciful death.

Historic Watkins Glen International seemed like a perfect destination for IndyCar when they started racing there in 2005, considering its history with Formula One in the sixties and seventies. A shifting schedule and lack of date equity killed an event already struggling at the gate and the event dropped off of the schedule following the 2010 season.

In the IRL days, IndyCar raced at the Monster Mile in Dover, Delaware in front of small crowds. Although it was a mainstay on the USAC trail for Championship cars, Trenton International Speedway in Trenton, NJ stopped hosting Indy car races in 1979. It was closed in 1980 and demolished in favor of a UPS shipping facility.

I always enjoyed watching racing on the bullring in Nazareth, but as good as it looked on television – it must not have been a big draw locally. IndyCar stopped racing there in 2004. Roger Penske sold the track when he sold his portfolio of tracks to ISC in 1999. It was closed after the 2004 season.

No matter what decade or sanctioning body, open-wheel racing has been a tough sell in the Northeast. Lime Rock Park in Connecticut plays host to various series, but the 1.5 mile track is considered too tight for the bigger and faster Indy cars. It seems more suited as a club track and would probably not be a huge draw, anyway.

Whether they like to admit it or not, IndyCar is a Midwestern sport. Not only are their roots there, so is their fan base. That’s not to say they shouldn’t branch out to other areas – they should. NASCAR has its roots in the southeast. They’ve tested other markets – some with success, others not so much. NASCAR races seven times a year in the Northeast – twice at Dover, twice at Pocono, twice at New Hampshire and once a year at Watkins Glen. They have decent to good crowds, but none of these venues are what they would consider signature events.

While IndyCar still tries to force itself upon the Northeastern part of the US for obvious reasons, there are other markets where I think IndyCar would host bigger crowds event though they may not look as attractive to potential sponsors.

IndyCar has played well here in the South in what is perceived to be NASCAR country. Perhaps the south is just RACING country. If you want to call northern Kentucky the South, the crowds were decent at Kentucky. They were happy to have IndyCar until NASCAR started racing there. After that, they couldn’t get IndyCar off the Kentucky Speedway schedule fast enough.

Right here in Nashville, even though the concrete track is too narrow and tight for IndyCar and too far removed from downtown Nashville – the Firestone Indy 200 at Nashville Superspeedway always played to sellout or near sellout crowds. Three hours to the south of us in Birmingham, Barber Motorsports Park hosts one of the best attended events on the schedule.

I was in attendance that fateful evening in Charlotte in 1999, when three spectators lost their lives at the IRL race right in NASCAR’s backyard. Humpy Wheeler, the president of Charlotte Motor Speedway at that time, vowed that Indy cars would never race on their sacred oval ever again. It was not due to the crowd, which I remember being huge for an IRL event. Wheeler is now gone from CMS, but he has been correct so far. IndyCar has not raced there since.

If IndyCar wants to focus on large metropolitan areas, should they look to Atlanta one more time? Atlanta Motor Speedway is somewhat of a clone to Texas and Charlotte. They raced there in the early days of the IRL, but not to big crowds. Then again, Atlanta has a reputation of not being a great sports town. If they can get past that reputation, why not give Road Atlanta a look?

New Orleans was tried last year. The weather magnified faults with that track. That and owner/promoter disagreements made NOLA end up as a one-year experiment that didn’t work. But New Orleans is not a typical southern market. New Orleans is more like a foreign country that just happens to be geographically located in the Deep South. Their culture is vastly different from what I consider the traditional southern states.

Perhaps it’s time to look at Richmond again. Iowa has proven to be such a success as a short oval, with better promotion and solid date equity – Richmond could become a mainstay on the IndyCar schedule.

But there are other areas of the country that are much more neglected by IndyCar than the South. The Pacific Northwest is fertile ground for open-wheel racing. Despite the stereotype that everyone there cares too much for the environment to embrace motor racing, Portland and Vancouver always brought big crowds to their respective races.

I still maintain Colorado as a good market for IndyCar, and other than the stigma associated with the Dan Wheldon fatality in 2011 – I think Las Vegas would be a good venue provided there were some configuration changes made to the track and cars to prevent pack racing.

Last, but not least, I think that our friends north of the border in Canada are vastly overlooked. With established racing markets in Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver – you can’t tell me that Toronto is the only viable market for IndyCar. While that appears to be a great event, I would think there is room for more growth. It’s not like going to Brazil, China or Australia where few US companies have much of a presence. Most US companies that would be potential sponsors for IndyCar, also do a great deal of business in Canada. This is an area that actually seems to prefer open-wheel racing to stock car racing. It seems to me that IndyCar would want to tap into that more.

Anyway, I think you get my point. While the Northeastern US appears to be low hanging fruit with its immense population centers, there is not much of a history of long-term open-wheel success in that part of the country. It seems to me that IndyCar is beating its head against a wall trying to make a fit in the Northeast, when they could be making a bigger splash in smaller markets where they are actually wanted. Maybe it’s time to try something different.

George Phillips

25 Responses to “Should IndyCar Give Up On The Northeast?”

  1. I voted for the Pacific Northwest, because I’m extremely confident that it will succeed there. Still, I would love to see more races in the Midwest (selfish reasons) and our amazing neighbors to the North.

  2. As a NYer who lives just outside of NYC and Indycar fan you can’t just pretty much ignore an area of the country for years and years and then expect fans to pack a venue… I’ve gone to all the Northeastern races from Richmond to Toronto. Since Pocono is the closest track to me I’ll Concentrate on that.. THERE IS NO major promotion in my market for this race save a little facebook promotion. Leading upto Pocono each year I haven’t seen any driver appearances or anything of the like in the NYC area. I live aprox 2 hours door to door from the track (including traffic)..people won’t come if they don’t know the race is happening…

  3. SkipinSC Says:

    I still think Michigan is doable, but whenever you schedule it, you
    HAVE to give it three years with a set date. Short of that NO TRACK or venue is going to catch on for a “one and done” or a “this year June, next year September” deal.

    Schedule makers are going to have to work with multi year calendars. Had Detroit not forced its way into the valued “post-Indy” slot, we’d still, In my estimation, be racing at Milwaukee. Of course, then you’d have Eddie Gossage threatening to pull the plug on Texas.

    Point is, make a plan and WORK the damn PLAN! Offer a discounted sanctioning fee or a “sliding” fee schedule for a set three-year commitment to a specific weekend. And forget “stand alone” weekends. If IndyCar is going racing in Vancouver, make it an “all skate” with the entire Road to Indy show. Give the paying customer a WEEKEND of racing instead of a single hour of qualifications and a two hour race with a couple of hour long practice sessions on Friday when everyone is working anyway.

    Try that in Cleveland and I’d almost guarantee you’d be successful, even with Mid Ohio a couple of hours down the road. Next week we’re going back to Phoenix with a Friday/Saturday two-race program with Lights. How about next year we approach that as a “Day in the Desert” with quals for all series on Friday and four (count ’em) FOUR races on Saturday, culminating with IndyCar under the lights?

    The more places you run more series, the more familiar those paying customers are going to be with up and coming talent. And the more BANG that paying customer is going to get for the BUCK!

  4. Remember when there was talk of a downtown Nashville street race? Brief and quite talk yes but it seems that in the home of Bridgestone an event would be great. Of course that might be what kept the Nashville Superspeedway on the roster but boy would it be nice if that did happen.

  5. Ron Ford Says:

    My list would include Canada, the NW, the Midwest, Milwaukee, and Fontana. No need for me to repeat the good points that Skip made about date equity, sticking to a three year plan, discounted sanctioning fee, and other concessions. (kids get in free)

    It did not help Milwaukee to lose its post-Indy date to Detroit. Most recently, three different dates and starting times in three years were due to TV related considerations. I believe that no significant amount of new fans are created by TV. And those fans that might be created will simply continue to watch on TV, particularly if there is no event in their area. To create new fans and keep old fans there need to be tracks close enough that a family and friends can afford to get to.

    Of course good promoters are vital to the success of any event, particularly a start-up. I think IndyCar could certainly do a better job of working with promoters instead of thowing road blocks in their way as they have done with Fontana and Milwaukee. One of the best promoters in the business is the owner of Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. It remains to be seen if IndyCar will give that event date equity and otherwise work with the promoter to make the event a long-term success.

    Currently IndyCar has increasing TV ratings for events that have flat or decreasing track attendence. Despite the lack of attention I gave to my high school economics class, I can see there is no future in that.

  6. I’d like to see Indycar return to Kansas Speedway. They always had decent to excellent crowds there. Racing was always good and produced many unexpected results. Problem with Kansas like most Indycar races was date equity. They tried it on 4th of July weekend and the fans were roasting alive in 100+ degree temps. Moved to April and had to deal with cold temps or Spring Midwest Thunderstorms. Now that lights are installed, I’d like to see a Saturday night summer. August could use another event a Summer night race in the midwest could fill the void nicely, especially if Pocono goes away next year. The series needs ovals and this seems like a natural fit.

  7. The Pacific Northwest and Canada make the most sense. There are great road courses in both that could easily host a race without all the ridiculous political brouhaha’s involved in new street courses. Long Beach, St. Pete, and Toronto are established street course events in large urban markets. Leave it at that and focus on natural terrain road courses, and small ovals.

  8. I can’t speak for all of these, but I can speak for Kentucky. Nascar coming didn’t kill the Indycar race. Fans didn’t kill the Indycar race. Indycar management killed the Kentucky Indycar race by changing the dates three years in a row, the last one opposite Riverfest, the big fireworks display that draws tens of thousands.

    This is not the only race Indycar has killed by constant changing of dates.

    I would not rule out any part of the country if there is competent management.

    The street courses will never survive long term due to their political nature and the use of tax money from basically bankrupt municipalities.

  9. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Gateway in St Louis is a venue that I recently heard would be ‘on the table’ again.

    I’m not sure MIL will ever be back and I actually fear that the track will be scrapped to expand the State Fair grounds area.

    RA and PHX are great additions and I think POC should be the sole focus of attention into the Northeast. Perhaps if New Hampshire really really wanted us, I’d still go there.

    Basically I think only venues should be added where 15-20,000 in attendance looks great on TV. Iowa is a great example of that, MIS would be the opposite.

    Canada has some great venues still untouched, but I doubt that Indycar will pursue any without a major market and population base to draw from. Vancouver and Montreal would be the only other Canadian bases I can think of that might stand the Milesian litmus test.

    • To scrap the oldest existing race course in America would be insane. So they will probably do it. But it does not have to go down without a fight.

      Sign the petition!

      • Bob, thank you so very much for making me aware of this. I live just a few miles from the track and have not missed a race there for about 65 years. I am retired now so I will look for opportunities to get involved. Perhaps we can get John Menard involved. The Harry Miller event is always very enjoyable.

  10. Bruce Waine Says:

    Selection of race venues are and have long been dictated by the bottom line…. aka pay to play ( or in this context pay to host a spec race).

    This policy will not change soon as we have annually observed.

  11. billytheskink Says:

    If Indycar wants national or North American attention, they should make the effort to build a schedule that reaches every region of nation or continent. Easier said then done, to be sure. The Northwest and Western Canada are areas that have been particularly neglected.

    One northeast US/Canada venue worth keeping an eye on is the Canadian Motor Speedway (which is really in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls area), which I believe has finally begun construction after much “deliberation”. While obviously being built with NASCAR in mind, NASCAR has set the Cup schedule through the end of the decade and the track ought to be looking at other series to fill their need for events in the meantime. That is, provided, there are no more issues that delay or stop construction of the facility.

    I’d still like to see Indycar tackle the short oval in Memphis. Try to make it Iowa-South, pair it with Lights and ARCA for a full two days of racing. It isn’t on anyone’s radar, but it is not the craziest dream, I don’t think.

  12. Mark Wick Says:

    I haven’t seen more lately, but there have been discussions about having a street race in Calgary next year. That is about three hours south of Edmondton which had Indy races for a number of years.

  13. I think going to the Southeast and Pacific Northwest are great targets. Why not Atlanta and Vancouver?! St Louis?

  14. Ron Ford Says:

    This is not relevant to today’s topic but I thought I would mention it while it is still fresh in what’s left of my mind: I ran a few errands today which included taking my chain saw to a small engine repair shop and to a Target store. Walking into the engine repair shop (a small business) the first thing I see is a Danica stand-up. On the counter were some Nascar die cast cars. On the adjacent POD stand were other Nascar items. At the Target store, once again there was nothing related to IndyCar, Scott Dixon, and the 100th running of that deal in Speedway. Go figure. I asked the cute, 20-something checkout girl if she had ever heard of IndyCar. She looked at me like I was from another era (which I am. Perhaps 2-3 eras actually) and said: Is that one of those driverless cars? I am not making this up.

  15. George, as you’re talking venues and the season has just begun: which races do you intend to cover from trackside on this here blog? Is Pocono among them?

  16. It would be great to see the return of the Molson Indy Vancouver

  17. I did n’t see it in the poll, but I would vote for the Rocky Mtn front range.
    We had a track here that drew 32,000 – 38,000 fans until Indycar stabbed them in the back.

    • The IRL raced at Pikes Peak International Raceway through 2005, which is when International Speedway Corporation bought the track and suspended operations. I don’t remember the IRL pulling the race so much as just losing it to the political machinations within ISC.

  18. If it is this difficult to get an IndyCar race in Boston I say follow the love and run from the places that don’t appreciate you. I can’t say I’m crazy about the people in the Northeast and if they can’t appreciate something that is nipping them on the butt I say go somewhere where else. I saw IndyCar at Nazareth twice in the early nineties and that was a great little track. The attendance was good there and why it has not translated to Pocono I don’t understand. It does not sound like the Boston race, if it even happens ,is going to come back. I really do not get it.

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